An Indigenous Affairs reporter reviews ‘Alaska Daily’

Will the show stop its whiteness from sabotaging its own premise?

 

Roz Friendly (Secwépemc actor Grace Dove) and Eileen Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank), whose culturally incompetent presence on Roz’s MMIR investigation is as unwelcome as it is ineffective in the new show ‘Alaska Daily.’
Darko Sikman/ABC

“Sucks when someone else gets assigned to a story you’re deeply invested in and feel like you could cover all by yourself,” seethes Roz Friendly, portrayed by Secwépemc actor Grace Dove, in the fifth episode of Alaska Daily. It’s a reproach to her partner in journalism, Eileen Fitzgerald, played by Hillary Swank, whose culturally incompetent presence on Roz’s missing and murdered Indigenous relatives (MMIR) investigation is as unwelcome as it is ineffective.

Roz is a lone crusader, fighting for her community by investigating cases involving missing Native women at a time when no one else with any resources will do so — not other journalists, not her own newsroom, and (of course) not the cops. This is a timely and engaging premise for a show. Unfortunately, it’s not the premise Alaska Daily runs with.

Instead, the showrunners made the baffling decision to center the character of Eileen Fitzgerald, a powerful white journalist losing her hotshot reputation. Thus the MMIR crisis ends up being a mere backdrop. They execute this affront on both the production level and within the world of the story: Showrunners brought in Swank to lead instead of letting Grace Dove carry the series. It echoes the way that, in the series, Swank’s character Eileen flies in from New York to “help” Roz, even though Roz neither needs nor desires a white savior.

What unfolds in consequence is a strange viewing experience: When characters like Roz call out systemic problems in the story’s world, as in the quote above, they might as well be breaking character and talking directly to the showrunners. Why is Eileen even here? What is Swank doing in this?

It’s bizarre, especially for a Native viewer, to sit down thinking you’re going to watch a story about the MMIR crisis and instead to be treated to scene after scene of a white woman having panic attacks about her personal and professional life. You couldn’t get a better example of tone-deaf whiteness if you ordered up 1,200 words of it by press time.

Showrunners brought in Swank to lead instead of letting Grace Dove carry the series.
Darko Sikman/ABC

Roz’s finesse is exactly the opposite of Eileen’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to journalism. 

But Dove sparkles as Roz, and through her the series does find glimmers of insight, as when Roz asks a mother for permission to write about her missing daughter, something a white journalist would almost certainly not do, or brings a gift to tribal elders before chatting with them, or establishes insider trust with a source by asking him what’s in his freezer. These Native-to-Native moments testify to the talent of the show’s two Native writers. They also demonstrate the cultural competence someone like Roz needs in order to report in Indian Country. Roz’s finesse is exactly the opposite of Eileen’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to journalism. You’d think this would create learning opportunities for Eileen. But not only has she not taken a cue from Roz — or even listened to her at all, apparently — the show itself doesn’t seem to realize the value of these moments. Instead, we’re continually asked to marvel at Eileen’s talent and genius as she bullies her way from one source to another, repeatedly and undeservedly eclipsing Roz. Eileen is a white archetype: the loose cannon, the rogue reporter or cop or spy who is always impatient and aggressive and defies their superiors, and yet who always gets results. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a loose cannon story — the annals of white entertainment are choked with them — but you can’t expect that kind of shit to fly when you’re reporting in rural Native communities, or hoping to find an audience with Native viewers.

The show’s other white characters attribute Eileen’s abrasive aggression not to her whiteness but to her New Yorkiness. One would think that this shit wouldn’t fly in Anchorage, the show’s setting, even among other white people. But for some strange reason, the showrunners keep writing Eileen’s belligerence as successful — again working against the entire premise of the series.

Roz shows Eileen how reporting is done in Alaska.
Darko Sikman/ABC

The most obvious reason for the show to bring Eileen in would have been to soften her by showing her a different kind of strength — the patient, vulnerable strength of Native women, or the close-knit strength of communities outside the big city, à la Twin Peaks, Schitt’s Creek or Northern Exposure — using her as a proxy to introduce audiences to new ways of seeing journalism. Instead, this ill-mannered interloper keeps teaching Alaskans and Alaska Natives how things really get done. A better reason for her presence would be to spark conversations about how Roz’s culturally sensitive methods contradict white-serving establishment assumptions about “journalistic objectivity” and ethics. You’d expect Eileen to crow about objectivity, for example, when Roz gives a gift to an elder she wants to talk to. Yet she doesn’t say a word about it. Too bad; that would have touched on a genuine tension in the world of Native reporting. But Alaska Daily has so far missed these opportunities, and instead gives us The Eileen Show.

The most obvious reason for the show to bring Eileen in would have been to soften her by showing her a different kind of strength.

Adding to these structural contradictions is the difficulty the viewer has sympathizing with Eileen. Swank’s performance is fantastic, as usual, but the character just isn’t terribly likable. Every scene we get to spend with Roz instead comes as a welcome relief. Yet we learn very little about Roz. What does she do to culturally ground herself after another frustrating day of her white editors failing her? Where does she live — in a multigenerational household, maybe, or in a city apartment? Does she care for anyone at home, or have anyone to support her? Only in the sixth episode do we find out that, yes, this stunning, intelligent professional does indeed have a boyfriend, and, yes, he drives a truck and wears a jean jacket. Meanwhile, back in white-lady land, we’ve seen multiple suitors come and go (and come back again) since the first episode. 

The other newsroom characters and their subplots are, unfortunately, not very interesting — at least not yet. That could change as the series finds its feet, but it would help if the show could interrogate its whiteness a little more directly. How come Gabriel, Jieun, Roz and Austin never get together in private to vent about their white overlords? Perhaps white writers have no idea that BIPOC staff do this, so it never gets written into white shows. But it would be far more interesting and pertinent than Austin and Jieun’s tepid love interest, which feels contrived as a DEI box check.

The duo's different approaches to reporting could provide insight into Indigenous affairs coverage, if the series finds its feet.
Darko Sikman/ABC

The sixth episode offers some hope, however, that Alaska Daily might finally come through for Roz, for Dove, and for its two Native writers. Even as Roz labors alone on her MMIR case, a white woman goes missing — and a media bonanza explodes. Roz’s newsroom prepares for a deluge of parachute journalists, and everyone at the paper works together to deliver the story no one else is telling: about the shocking disparity in the resources devoted to the missing white woman compared to those devoted to missing Native women. Here the show has promise: Roz’s frustrations are creating real change. White characters are working with her, supporting her, instead of teaching or eclipsing or under-resourcing her. The relationships between the characters come together to produce something of value: a front page that confronts whiteness and educates the public about MMIR.

Alaska Daily will finish its first season on ABC in February and March. Perhaps the first five episodes were simply the wonky wobblings of a show still sorting out its blind spots. There’s opportunity here for it to be as powerful and important as its fictional front-page story — if the show reorients itself to support its Native writers and characters instead of keeping the camera focused on the white people who talk over them.

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.  

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