Bad Press Review | Freedom of Press Isn’t Free

by Andrew Parker

Bad Press is an old school feeling documentary about pressing modern problems told from an original perspective. It’s highly entertaining, pleasingly twisty, emotionally charged, and gives the viewer clear cut heroes and villains worth cheering and jeering throughout. Bad Press crackles with the tension of a great drama or thriller, but showcases the fears and advocacy of everyday people fighting for their place in the world. And while it’s told from an indigenous perspective, the issues raised by co-directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler should be heeded by everyone living under tenuous democracies around the world in the age of misinformation and political slant.

Out of the 574 federally recognized indigenous tribes in the United States, only five of them had a free, independent press as of 2018. One of them is the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, located primarily in and around Oklahoma and home to Mvskoke Media, a multimedia news outlet that provides video, radio, and newspaper coverage of tribal comings and goings. Mvskoke Media covered hot button issues like embezzlement scandals linked to elected officials and sexual harassment accusations being brought against National Council Speaker (and future candidate for Chief) Lucian Tiger III. In November of 2018, Tiger called for an emergency legislative session that would repeal a freedom of press act that dated back to the early 1900s. With Tiger’s own vote breaking a deadlocked tie, the motion passed, leaving Mvskoke Media under the editorial oversight of tribal officials who can scuttle any stories that would portray elected or the community in a potentially negative light, regardless of the factual accuracy of the reporting involved.

Bad Press moves with a distinct sense of purpose, with Baker (who’s also the Executive Director of the Native American Journalists Association) and Peeler laser focused on both what Mvskoke Media means to the community and what this situation means in the context of how journalism is seen today. The filmmakers have some wonderful, straight shooting protagonists that use this opportunity to voice their furies and frustrations without a need to filter or approve their stories. Defiant reporter Angel Ellis is used to people calling, threatening, and questioning her heritage, so she goes all in on fighting the tribal leadership without hesitation, while fellow reporter Jerrad Moore – a nerdy film buff – provides a lot of background context about the day to day operations behind the scenes.

Bad Press also spends time embedded with the political candidates – including Tiger, who does not come off well here – using the media company as a gambit in their power plays during an election year. The business of politics as seen in Bad Press has a brilliant sense of escalation and stakes, with Baker and Peeler lucking into plenty of dramatically tense moments of dread and sometimes hilarious bursts of dark humour. The winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, Bad Press might be the most underrated and overall best documentaries of the year; a first class workplace drama with tremendous stakes that moves with the power of a freight train. It is not to be slept on.

Bad Press is now playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto. On Saturday, September 30, 2023 at 2:15pm, in honour of Truth and Reconciliation Day, imagineNative and the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema will be hosting a free screening of Bad Press, featuring a post-movie Q&A with co-director Joe Peeler. Donations to the Hot Docs-Weengushk Film Institute Fund are suggested and appreciated, with 100% of the donations going directly to supporting Weengushk’s work.

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