50 Years Ago

Nakai supports freedom of the press

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

July 24, 2014

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In July, 1964, Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai was under siege by members of the off-reservation media who wanted to ask him one simple question: Was he trying to control the news that was reported in the tribe's newspaper, the Navajo Times?

It began when the managing editor of the paper, Chet MacRorie, announced in June 1964 that he was stepping down partly because he found it impossible to operate under conditions that did not allow him to put out a fair and balanced paper because of pressure from aides for Nakai.

He basically said in his resignation announcement that readers of the two-year-old paper could not trust what they read in the paper, a statement that created a lot of controversy not only on the reservation but also in New Mexico where the Albuquerque Journal picked up the story and assigned a reporter to look into it.

Nakai was forced to say that MacRorie's statement was totally inaccurate and that he had never once in his administration tried to control the press.

In fact, he was correct.

MacRorie would later say that the pressure came from aides to Nakai who wanted the paper to promote the administration's agenda. He said he thought that Nakai really didn't care one way or the other since he claimed he didn't read the paper and had no interest in getting his name in it.

But his aides realized that the paper was becoming very powerful since it was the only one covering Navajo news on a weekly basis. The Journal did an occasional story and local papers in Farmington, Flagstaff and Gallup would have a story or two a week butÊ usually these centered on things that had some connection to their communities.

Nakai had hoped that the controversy would eventually die down but four weeks after MacRorie's resignation, he was still getting questions and it only seemed to get worse.

So he did something that no one expected -- he came out strongly for freedom of the press on the Navajo Reservation.

He wrote a memo to tribal departments saying that the Navajo Tribe will stress freedom of the press. He said this freedom is based on provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

"We here on the Navajo Reservation also believe in freedom of the press and we recognize the responsibility of the press to report all matters of interest to the Navajo people, including tribal government matters and other activities on the reservation," he wrote.

"With these thoughts in mind, I herewith instruct my division directors and department heads to provide the press with full information concerning all division and department activities, plans, programs and achievements. We are proud to have an 'open door' policy toward the press," he added.

"This will be the source of very good information that will be forwarded to the Navajo people, not only of the tribal government and the various activities by the administration, but it will also provide full coverage on all items of interest for the readers of the Navajo Times," he wrote.

Ironically, in the same issue that the Times published Nakai's memo, the paper published a long article on its editorial page blasting radio stations for having their radio personalities talk about politics when they should be playing songs and entertaining its listeners.

The article came from a national broadcasting association, which felt that broadcasters were wandering too far afield and were usurping the role newspapers were supposed to play.

The problem, said the article, is that while readers of newspapers knew that editorials were located in a certain section of the paper, there was no such separation from entertainment and opinion for radio listeners.

What's interesting about this -- and one can wonder if Nakai caught it if he read the article -- is that one of the main reasons Nakai was elected chairman of the tribe in 1962 was that he used his radio program in Flagstaff for several years to go after the former chairman of the tribe, Paul Jones, calling him at times a stooge for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and totally clueless on how to run the tribal government.

Nakai, over the years, according to his aides, took a lot of criticism from supporters of the Jones administration for many of his statements. There were reports that letters of compliant would come in frequently to the radio station demanding that Nakai be fired.

But Nakai, according to some surveys, was one of the most popular broadcasters on Flagstaff radio and as long as he delivered the listeners, the radio station seemed to be willing to forgive his politicizing.

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