Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux and more than 100 other tribes have been protesting the construction of a portion of the North Dakota Access Pipeline, alleging that its proximity to the Missouri River, the tribe’s water source, threatens both the tribe’s environment and its sovereignty. But what began as a local story has blown up in recent weeks, due in part to the violence captured on film by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and the subsequent warrant for her arrest. Bob speaks with Bismarck Tribune reporter Lauren Donovan, one of the first journalists to cover the protest encampments back in April, about the difficulties of covering the protests and the potential impact of the national attention on Standing Rock.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
The North Dakota Access Project is a pipeline under construction to deliver fracked oil from the state’s shale fields. Last week, a federal judge denied an injunction request from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to halt construction based on what it said was a threat to its water supply and to sacred burial grounds. That motion was denied, but soon thereafter the Obama Administration did request a pause while considering broader questions of treaty obligations and tribal sovereignty. The implications loom large but the smoldering battle between the pipeline’s contractors and the tribal groups was on the radar of few news organizations, besides the nearby Bismarck Tribune, that is, until Amy Goodman of Democracy Now arrived on the site with a camera crew, just in time to witness pipeline security macing protesters and going after them with dogs.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you telling the dogs to bite the protestors? The dog has blood in its nose and its mouth.
BOB GARFIELD: An uproar ensued. Police issued an arrest warrant for Goodman, alleging trespassing, and the story that had been owned by the Tribune’s veteran reporter Lauren Donovan suddenly was national news. Though the video was a turning point, Donovan says, the pressure and attention had been building slowly for weeks.
LAUREN DONOVAN: The coverage really picked up steam when the small encampment reacted then to the bringing on of the equipment to where the pipeline will or would cross the river.
BOB GARFIELD: Actual bulldozers dozing, diggers digging.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Yeah, here goes the topsoil. And so, the Native Americans, when that happened, they stood in front of the equipment, they tried to bar access. The reservation put out a call to other Native Americans to join in or to support. And I covered almost all of that.
BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, the story took a turn when Amy Goodman and her crew showed up and documented that spasm of confrontation in which protesters were maced and bitten by guard dogs wielded by the handful of security personnel on the site. It went from being a kind of ongoing story to pretty big news. And when that all happened, you were [LAUGHS] where?
LAUREN DONOVAN: [LAUGHS] Well, I was on vacation. I was enjoying a holiday weekend. We had a, a skeleton staff. We had one person there and news came into the newsroom that yet another incident had happened. So this reporter was trying to gather up what she could.
BOB GARFIELD: So, unfortunately, the Tribune story was based on not a reporter’s eyewitness recounting but by a police report –
LAUREN DONOVAN: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: - which was written by police who also weren’t on the scene at the time.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Right. The sheriff characterized what had happened out there as something closer to a riot, certainly not a peaceful demonstration. And the only allusion that he made to anyone being injured was to the security guard, three of them, I believe, and two dogs that were injured. We did have a more expanded story online, which included statement by the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but we admit willingly, more than anyone, that our report was incomplete.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, protesters, more or less by their nature, tend to be ornery in varying degrees, and you have run into some ornery-ossitude yourself. There is one particular incident that was problematic. Can you tell me what happened last Friday?
LAUREN DONOVAN: Friday was the day that we were expecting this announcement from the Federal District Court. So it was a rainy day and it was a tough day to be at the camp. I wasn't sure of my welcome anymore. I had been at the camp many times and a great experience on most of those occasions, but now I felt – I felt uneasy.
So finally around 2 o'clock, the announcement came. First of all, the judge denied the injunction, and within a few minutes the Department of the Interior, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Justice issued a joint statement and ordered a work stop on the river crossing, while the agencies reviewed the whole protocol and looked more deeply at the tribe’s concerns. And the joint statement is, of course, received as a very affirming win by the tribe. So I'm starting to work the crowd and trying to get reactions.
BOB GARFIELD: And you’re approached by a woman, a legal volunteer from out of state.
LAUREN DONOVAN: Right
BOB GARFIELD: And she got in your face, saying what?
LAUREN DONOVAN: She got in my face and she wanted me to know that the Bismarck Tribune, among other things, needed to quit referring to all of these protesters as protesters and start referring to them as protectors. And my voice is going up because hers was really going up. She wanted me to know, in no uncertain terms, that this terminology was dehumanizing and that if we persisted in the use of the word “protester” the next thing that people would be saying is that these are terrorists and that we needed to get it right and start referring to these people as “protectors.”
The reality is you may see yourselves that way but every media in the world that’s on this story, us included, this is the shorthand description that we’re all using.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, not to suggest that the Bismarck Tribune is expected to represent the whole of mainstream media and, you know, white privilege, but your audience and your staff aren't exactly the most diverse.
LAUREN DONOVAN: [LAUGHS] Well, we are diverse, if you count Norwegians and, and Germans and –
If you’re gonna ask whether we had Native Americans on the staff, I can tell you that in the 20 years that I have been a reporter with the Bismarck Tribune I know for sure we’d had two Native American applicants and I know for sure we hired both of them. We currently don't have any on staff.
BOB GARFIELD: But what - I'm not asking it to be indicting. I’m just asking since there are racial and cultural sensitivities at play here, if the paper had difficulty navigating its coverage or faces the perception by the tribes of bias against their cause?
LAUREN DONOVAN: Well, we hear that word “bias” and, and we get it in our emails and from readers, and I try my best to be honest about my own limitations. It isn't a foreign country to me. I’ve spent a lot of time on the reservation. But I am white and I have white ears, and so I might be tone deaf to some degree. All I can do really is try my very best.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s great about this story journalistically is that it's really five stories in one, of course, the confrontation between protesters and security. There is the issue of tribal sovereignty and whether treaties and other protocols were ignored or given short shrift. There is the environmental story about what specifically may be at risk on tribal lands. There's the larger environmental story about whether fracking shale oil is sensible, to begin with. You know, this was all yours for quite a while [LAUGHS], all - ‘cause nobody else was interested.
Nobody else wanted it. Are you happy to have the national attention or do you wish you could keep this story all to your own?
LAUREN DONOVAN: Oh no, I don't want this story to myself. These tribal people deserve to have this story told around the world. This really is their moment. As a white person looking in, I really hope that this becomes a unity that they use to solve or address or deal with a whole host of issues in terms of how they are doing in the world. This is not the most important issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Lauren, many thanks.
LAUREN DONOVAN: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Lauren Donovan is a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune.