On Truth, Fiction and White Guilt


It was good to see HCN publish two long letters commenting on Matt Jenkin’s “Peace on the Klamath” feature in the 6/23 edition. As a Klamath River activist since 1986 I was deeply disturbed by Jenkin’s piece which omits complex Klamath realities in favor of the West’s Holy Grail – “Peace” between cowboys (agriculture) and Indians (federal tribes). If you’ve read Jenkin’s feature and not those letters please read them. To find the letters go to the July 21st edition, then scroll down to the "Letters" section and select the first two letters.

I approach the concept of “Peace on the Klamath” as an Italian American from South Philadelphia who fell into living and working with Indigenous natives as well as farmers and ranchers in far Northern California over 30 years ago. Over this time I have become convinced that achieving real “peace” between red and white folks will require something quite different than what is taking place now in the Klamath River Basin. What we need is more akin to the Truth and Reconciliation processes which have taken place in South Africa and elsewhere than the back room Water Deal certain tribes and the Klamath Basin’s Irrigation Elite – with the deep involvement of the Bush Administration Interior officials - have fashioned.

But upon reflection - and within the context of Matt Jenkin’s other recent feature on Navajo water rights and the letters which have criticized both articles - I think there are deeper issues than whether Matt provided an accurate and complete view of the complex and thorny Klamath River issues. I explore those deeper issues below.

Journalistic “objectivity”

On what constitutes good journalism HCN editors subscribe to the dominant view which asserts that journalists should strive for objectivity and eschew advocacy. Journalists must come to a story without deep prior convictions concerning the issues. If a journalist appears involved and has a point of view on the issues their writing is labeled advocacy journalism.  

The myth of objectivity has been demolished in science. We now know that the scientist – the observer – influences what she observes and that the influence is deterministic, i.e. it influences the results, the “answer” which is obtained via the scientific method. In light of this knowledge, it is surprising that mainstream journalism continues to assert objectivity as the sine qua non of good journalism. I conclude that the mainstream profession is in deep denial. One result of this denial is that for most editors style (how an article is written) is more important than content (whether the journalist accurate portrays the facts).

As a reader, I have a growing suspicion that HCN editors also place more emphasis on style than on content. Particularly when I am familiar with the subject matter, I often find myself frustrated with what appears to me to be incomplete or inaccurate reporting. But perhaps this perceptions is influenced by my own bias and advocacy. So I want to encourage HCN editors, contributors and readers to engage in a conversation on this topic. Is objective journalism a myth? Should HCN allow advocates to contribute as journalists? Does HCN place too much emphasis on style and not enough on complete and accurate reporting? GOAT Blog is a good place for that conversation to take place. Please have at it!

White Guilt and the coverage of Indigenous tribes and issues

Does HCN cover issues involving Indigenous natives in a different manner than it covers other issues? Recent articles on Navajo Water Rights and the Klamath River have engendered strong negative reactions. Most of these reactions allege that key facts, key players or key aspects of the issues were either ignored or missed by the reporter. Has this occurred because the reporter missed key facts and key aspects of the stories or because his attitude toward Indigenous tribes and people caused him to defer to the manner in which tribal representatives wanted the stories presented?  While I obviously have my suspicions, on this score I am unsure? After all, there have also been strong negative reactions to HCN stories that do not involve tribes or Indigenous issues.

While I am in doubt about the influence of White Guilt at HCN, I am totally convinced that White Guilt strongly influences how Indigenous tribes, people and issues in the American West are generally reported and addressed. And while guilt about the manner in which members of the white race and our government treated Indigenous natives here is appropriate, the manner in which that guilt is expressed is often not appropriate. For example, westerners who experience White Guilt often defer inappropriately to tribal governments while failing to take action to uncover and denounce the atrocities which were perpetrated by white individuals, the army and the government. These folks do not understand or appreciate that the Tribes are not the People and the People are not the Tribes. Federal tribes today are creatures of the federal government created as part of the New Deal and – in most cases – they do not reflect the culture and traditions of the Indigenous natives whom they claim to represent. One measure of this is the turnout – or more precisely the lack of turnout - in tribal elections.

An example may help to illustrate this point. The tribe I last worked for – the Yurok Tribe – has adopted a saying: “To the Yurok Tribe the salmon are everything.”  Yurok politicians use the phrase but they did not create it. The traditional young person living near and from the Klamath River who create the phrase actually said “For the Yurok People the salmon are everything.” When applied to traditional Yuroks the saying is true; for the Yurok Tribe, however, salmon is just one of many agendas. Until a reporter gets this distinction clear, he will have difficulty reporting accurately on Klamath River issues.

The federal tribes have learned to manipulate White Guilt to advance their agendas. For example, I believe tribal manipulation of White Guilt helps blind the media to key problems with the Water Deal being promoted by the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath Tribes as well as other western water deals involving tribes.  I started writing intending to share some of these problems which Matt Jenkins’ Klamath article and the two letters commenting on it omitted. Instead I have ventured into deeper waters of which Matt’s article is only one example. 

I hope readers and editors will enter these deeper waters. In my view, HCN, while not perfect, remains the best journalistic source for staying in touch with the American West. Because coverage of Indigenous issues and tribes is a key western feature, I’m hoping the entire HCN community will take this opportunity to investigate how White Guilt may be influencing HCN coverage of Indigenous issues and tribes.

There is, of course, another relevant issue: Does HCN employ Indigenous native journalists or provide a sufficient number and variety of Indigenous native voices? While I would not want HCN editors to only publish what Indigenous native journalists have to say about Indigenous issues and tribes, it would be interesting to find in its pages more native perspectives – and more articles by Indigenous journalists.

As for the Klamath, those who want to see “the rest of the story” – including items none of the journalists reporting on the Klamath River Basin have (yet) reported – can check out KlamBlog.

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