A Conversation with Jenni Monet
The Women’s Media Center’s recently released report, “The Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media 2018,” documents the systemic racism, the old boys’ network, gender bias, and other obstacles that have resulted in a severe underrepresentation of women of color in all news media. Women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff, and 6.2 percent of local radio staff.
The report includes interviews with nearly 30 women journalists of color who shed light on the challenges they face and offer solutions for media companies. Below is our conversation with Jenni Monet, freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and member of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters board of directors.
WOMEN’S MEDIA CENTER: Across the landscape of news media, what do you see?
JENNI MONET: I try to stay as optimistic as possible, even as I watch how others have shaped the news about Indian Country and brought their outsiders’ narratives. What’s at the very top of my mind right now is President Trump dishonoring our Native heroes, our code talkers, with his Pocahontas remark. It’s hate speech that, in mainstream media, doesn’t really get talked about adequately.
As a journalist of color and a woman, I respond to these moments with all kinds of emotion, and I do that at a time when there is this huge vacuum in the indigenous narrative. Indian Country Today Media Network, our largest outlet, closed a few weeks ago, though you wouldn’t know it. So few people have turned their attention to that monumental space going dark.
WMC: What does its closure mean?
MONET: What remains are a few aggregator sites that will pick up a few stories from places near tribal communities — and that’s if anyone at all decides they will cover tribal issues, to say nothing of covering them well. When 14-year-old Jason Pero, a Native American, was shot and killed by an Ashland, Wisconsin, police officer, it took more than a week for the national media to wake up to the facts. Then, on the day of the traditional ceremony to honor him, the media reported this one-sided view from the Wisconsin Department of Justice about how that teenager allegedly paved the way to committing something like suicide by cop, that he wanted police to kill him. My podcast countered that with an indigenous narrative and talked about how the narrative itself is in trouble.
WMC: Your recent reporting includes coverage of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline running through the Standing Rock Reservation.
MONET: The other day I spoke to a roomful of community broadcasters. I went email by email, voice mail by voice mail, text message by text message, showing pushback from editors for whom I was doing groundwork reporting on the Standing Rock protests but who did not see my work as worthy of a byline. They were calling and asking me what the mood was on the ground while they sat at their desks in New York City. They’d been told, “Jenni Monet is the one you want to talk to.” But they didn’t want to pay, so I nipped it: If you want those experiences documented, you need to hire me or you can call someone else. Who has to do that? Have these nice, careful conversations about getting paid? It’s a hard tightrope to walk.
But this is my professional reputation we’re talking about. I’m sure that many of them perceive me as a Native activist, not a journalist. When I called back about getting paid for my journalism, some of them saw me as haranguing them.
WMC: How’d you get your start in journalism?
MONET: Twenty years ago — when the Internet was not what it is today and there didn’t seem to be very many people taking risks on Brown girls coming off the reservation — I got my foot in the door through TV news. I was a cub reporter working my way up in a small market in the Four Corners, part of the Navajo Nation, who didn’t see it as a matter of covering Indian County but of covering the news about people with a lot interesting sets of circumstances. Federal laws, special court regulations … that’s a heavy lift for any journalist.
For a while, I was the lone woman reporter and anchored the 10 o’clock newscast at a station that is no longer in operation. Afterward, I moved to a station in Albuquerque, where I spent five years as a reporter until I walked away. My news director wanted us to wear a white ribbon on air to commemorate the 9/11 attacks. That wasn’t the kind of journalism I studied or subscribed to. I left at the end of the year, got my contract paid out, and went to go live with my mom in Oklahoma while I figured things out. There, I started working as a TV news freelancer. I continued having to go to bat about news stories involving tribes, including in Oklahoma, which has a huge indigenous population.
WMC: Personal background and experience often factor into the stories we identify and pursue. Which influences you more, being female or being of color?
MONET: I often don’t differentiate between the two. But I’m also clear that the police often are not looking for missing, and presumed dead, girls on reservations because they are female and Native.
WMC: Do you ever miss being in the newsroom?
MONET: I made a very deliberate pivot, leaving commercial newsrooms. My independence as a journalist is quite deliberate. I’m more successful, now, at getting stories out than when I was in a newsroom where I had two editors I pitched to and who almost always told me “No,” they weren’t interested in what I was pitching.
I still get “No” when I pitch. I’m as exasperated as ever by a lot of this stuff. But I want to keep getting upset over it — because it keeps me on my toes and because I want to keep making things change.
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