Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler look at the Muscogee/Creek Nation journalists’ fight for freedom of press.

As a sucker for underdog stories and stories about the triumph of journalism, Bad Press is right up my alley. Directed by Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler, Bad Press follows the reporters and journalists of the Mvskoke Media in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, who just want to offer the people of the Muscogee/Creek Nation access to the news about their community. This is made nearly impossible when in 2015 the Free Press Act is repealed and the independent editorial board is dissolved giving the council control over the paper.

Bad Press reveals the essential nature of the free press and what happens when it is stifled by politicians and officials who would rather control the narrative than let the truth see the light of day. At the core of Bad Press is the simple desire to show the truth to the people of the Muscogee Nation. To not only celebrate the community as the council wants, but also to reveal its problematic underbelly to keep people informed about their nation. Landsberry-Baker and Peeler dive deep into the group of reporters who are adamant about getting their freedom of press back, among them is Angel Ellis, a reporter who is determined to see the wrong righted.

While there are several documentaries at Sundance that feel larger than life, focusing on celebrities or global issues, Bad Press feels intentionally intimate and yet covers a topic that is vital to our society. It’s not just a story about the free press but also about corruption and the intrinsic necessity and value of grassroots journalism. In a time when critics of news and journalism like to view journalism under the blanket of the oh-so-hated “media,” Bad Press illustrates where a community would be without freedom of press. The only defense against corruption and abuse of power is the voice of the people.

Bad Press
Image via Sundance

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The documentary follows the arduous journey that the reporters face, spanning years, while getting threats launched against them by council people who are threatened by the return of the free press. We witness the community take two steps forward and one step back, fighting tooth and nail for a right that many of us take for granted. Officials who support them get elected only to do very little in order to help the journalists get their power back. Tribal newspapers face censorship from tribal officials, an issue that impacts not only the Muscogee Nation but Indigenous journalists all across the country.

We follow the intrepid reporters and journalists as they face personal threats to their safety and their professional careers as they fight for one of the most essential rights. This isn’t just an issue that affects Muscogee Nation, it’s a microcosm of what can happen without freedom of the press. It reminds us how valuable the news can be and what the landscape of truth can look like when it is gone. We follow Angel and her fellow journalists as they must struggle through year after year, celebrating their wins and mourning their losses. There’s no glossy sheen, no dramatic score. Bad Press brings us into the trenches of their push and pull with local politics, and it is made all the better for it.

Rating: B+

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