Bill Donovan laughs when he describes the four times he was fired from the Navajo Times for writing stories critical of tribal government. The joking stops when he tells of the day 20 years ago when the newspaper was shut down.
On Feb. 19, 1987, under then-Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr., the tribe closed the only daily newspaper in Indian country at the time, citing an audit of the paper that MacDonald said revealed debts to the IRS and mismanagement.
The newspaper, like most tribal newspapers today, was owned and controlled by the tribe. There was no freedom of the press, and staff members constantly struggled with tribal interference.
“There has always been this fight within the paper because, technically, the chairman of the tribe is the publisher of the newspaper,” said Donovan, a freelance writer. “There’s a feeling that you have to be at least somewhat supportive of the administration.”
The Navajo Times, then called the Navajo Times Today, survived the shutdown, which spurred discussion of a free press in Indian country.
The Navajo Nation Council has since granted the newspaper its independence – a unique feat for newspapers in Indian country, said Mike Kellogg, president of the Native American Journalists Association.
“Government leaders are becoming more aware of what a free press does for citizens,” said Kellogg, business manager for the Navajo Times Today when it closed. “It keeps them better informed, it allows them to ask tougher questions and it allows them not to risk being fired if they ask the tough questions.”
MacDonald beat out incumbent Chairman Peterson Zah in the 1986 election. Then-publisher Mark Trahant wrote an editorial endorsing Zah, and staff members suspect that the endorsement and other stories critical of MacDonald’s administration led to the paper’s demise.
“We thought management would be changed, but MacDonald went to an extreme,” said Tom Arviso Jr., a former sportswriter for the paper and now its editor. “You have to understand what tribal politics is about. It gets personal.”
The 78-year-old MacDonald, now living in Tuba City, Ariz., denies he retaliated against the Navajo Times.
“So if they did support Zah editorially, I didn’t think it made any difference,” MacDonald said. “I won, so why should I take revenge?”
MacDonald said the audit, conducted shortly after he took office, showed that the newspaper owed the IRS thousands of dollars — which Trahant acknowledged – and that advertising money and funds appropriated by the tribe were used for travel, golfing and expensive dinners.
“Immediately, we wanted to put a stop to it,” MacDonald said, explaining there needed to be a move toward profitability.
The Navajo Times started as an education newsletter in 1961 and became a weekly publication two years later. The paper had lost nearly $1 million after switching from a weekly to a daily in 1984, but Trahant said it was losing less money each year.
Trahant met with MacDonald and suggested ways to turn a profit, such as a management buyout and creation of a tribal media company. MacDonald didn’t bite.
“It was easy for them to look at the negative numbers and say this shouldn’t be happening,” said Trahant, now editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
MacDonald reopened the Navajo Times as a weekly in June 1987 with plans to have it become independent of the tribe by the end of his term to “eliminate the suspicion that there is control somewhere,” he said.
But the Navajo Nation Council removed MacDonald from office during a corruption scandal in 1989. Though he was convicted of federal conspiracy charges, MacDonald later was pardoned by the Tribal Council and former President Bill Clinton.