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Freedom of press shown taken for granted in ‘Bad Press’

Joe+Peeler%2C+co-director+of+Bad+Press%2C+and+lead+star+and+reporter%2C+Angel+Ellis%2C+discuss+the+making+of+the+film+including+the+messaging+and+making.
Clark Roque Royandoyan
Joe Peeler, co-director of “Bad Press,” and lead star and reporter, Angel Ellis, discuss the making of the film including the messaging and making.

Freedom of the press is an essential part of the U.S. Constitution and of any newsroom, allowing journalists to freely critique institutions and expose important issues to keep the world at large informed. However, the 2023 Sundance U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award Winner for Freedom of Expression provides a gateway to understanding how easily people can take that right for granted.

Cinemapolis hosted a screening of “Bad Press” on April 22, with all proceeds going toward The Ithaca Voice, an online nonprofit news organization that publishes local community news in Ithaca. After a light reception featuring assortments of cheese, crackers and drinks, along with an introduction by Barbara Adams, associate professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, around 50 people in the community gathered to watch the film and support community journalism.

The story follows the aftermath of the Muscogee Nation’s press freedom getting repealed. Journalist Angel Ellis led the charge on codifying protections for journalists, all while fighting to ensure a fair and transparent election process. The film points out how, at the time of filming in 2019, of the 574 indigenous nations recognized across the country, only five had the necessary protections for an independent press.

Kate Donohue, executive director of Cinemapolis, said the screening provides an opportunity to discuss the importance of free press and the kinds of vulnerabilities that exist within the current system.

“I am grateful to live in a town where we have local press outlets that are doing important work,” Donohue said. “I’m happy to do what we can as an organization to support that.”

Following the screening, Matt Butler, editor-in-chief of The Ithaca Voice and adjunct professor of journalism at Ithaca College, moderated a 50-minute Q&A with co-director Joe Peeler and lead star and reporter Angel Ellis. Although the film is not streaming or playing in U.S. theaters after its initial festival run, Peeler said he hopes for it to be available by the end of the year.

Peeler said he was first drawn to the project after co-director Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and producer Garrett Baker first approached him with the story.

“I thought of myself as a politically tuned-in guy,” Peeler said. “I know about stuff that’s happening in America, I read the news, I listen to the radio, and [yet] I had no clue that any of this was happening. So I heard that and thought, ‘Oh, well maybe if I don’t know, maybe a lot of other people won’t know.’”

The documentary showcases how Mvskoke Media, the organization Ellis serves as director of, struggled to regain their audience after localized pressure by elected officials led to many important issues not getting covered.

“It was very hard to rebuild the camaraderie and confidence that your newsroom has,” Ellis said. “When you lose that kind of knowledge in your institution, it’s devastating. I think that’s something that’s happening to every newsroom across America right now. So I really like to encourage the dialogue … to empower both the consumer of information and the provider.”

Sophomore Arnau Phillips was one of the students who attended the screening. Phillips said one of the biggest takeaways from the film and the Q&A was the passion seen in the local journalists.

“Especially Angel Ellis and how hard she fought for the freedom of the press,” Phillips said. “[At the Q&A], she seemed like the exact same person from the film. … She was super energetic, super real. She didn’t hold back on any of her language.”

In addition to Ithaca locals and students, college faculty were also present in the audience. Jennifer Karchmer91, adjunct professor in the Department of Journalism at Ithaca College, said her favorite scene in the film featured Ellis flipping through the newspaper archives.

“For a reporter to have that kind of knowledge, understanding and appreciation for their archives was awesome,” Karchmer said. “That also speaks to the idea of institutional knowledge. When we see somebody leave a newspaper, get laid off or take a buyout, that knowledge goes with them.”

With so many smaller papers shutting down around the country and a continued push toward online content, Ellis said that it is the everyday work of local journalists and people who make sure that communities properly preserve their stories.

“I think this film signifies that Native Americans were erased from history books,” Ellis said.
“I’m entirely motivated to make sure that my community is never erased from an archive and to heal that archive, showing that we’re still here.”

While the film is informative and educational, co-directors Landsberry-Baker and Peeler also leave in everyday moments of humor. For example, one prolonged moment features a local struggling to place his campaign sign in a grass field.

“I think to an extent we got lucky that there’s a lot of Native humor and different people in the movie who are inherently funny,” Peeler said. “Honestly, in an early edit of the film, it was an issue because too many people were too funny. … It was a real struggle to shape in the edit and be like, ‘What do we need?’”

Ellis said that after atrocity and atrocity committed against indigenous people over the course of history, indigenous humor is about stealing their power back.

“There comes a point where you have to just look at the stuff that scares the hell out of you and laugh at it,” Ellis said. “Diminish its power, bring its power into yourself. That’s what Native humor does. We just joke and we’re sarcastic.”

Many people in the audience did not realize how far back indigenous people had been making an impact on the world of journalism. The first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix was printed in 1828, predating The New York Times and The Washington Post. Ellis said it is the oldest and most widely circulated printed paper, being sent to multiple countries.

“That is all centered in this very rich history of storytelling,” Ellis said. “It used to just be oral storytelling. … As time and technology developed, we roll into this era where we talk about storytelling in terms of an archive or a printed manuscript of process. … Now I think we’re going to become story protectors in the grand scheme of things.”

After the event, Peeler said that the room full of journalists and aspiring journalists was incredibly engaged.

“I just love these conversations because they’re deeper cut questions than I normally get,” Peeler said. “It’s about the real implications of the film and not the surface knowledge, which was really exciting.”

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