It’s been nearly a month since Native American activists and allies began calling on CNN to fire senior political commentator Rick Santorum, after the former GOP presidential candidate said there was “nothing” in America before white colonizers came and that Native Americans haven’t done much for culture anyway.
So on Thursday, Native advocacy groups — including IllumiNative, the National Congress of American Indians, NDN Collective and Native American Rights Fund — are holding a “day of action” with a day-long tweetstorm featuring the hashtag #RemoveRick and a Twitter chat with Native journalists to talk about the impact of Native erasure in the media.
They also enlisted celebrities to help pressure the news network to cut ties with Santorum and make other systemic changes, after what the advocates said have been “multiple instances of erasure, bias, and racism against Native peoples at the network.”
“CNN needs to be held accountable for what they are putting on the airwaves,” said Crystal Echohawk, executive director of IllumiNative, a nonprofit focused increasing the visibility of Indigenous people. “Ignoring, silencing, and evading accountability to Native peoples are tactics of erasure. CNN has continuously shown that they are a willing participant in the erasure of Native peoples ― racism that whitewashes history and is a threat to all communities of color.”
The groups will also be circulating an open letter to CNN executives and advertisers with more than 120 signatures from Native leaders; actors including Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Helms, Mark Ruffalo, Piper Perabo and Sarah Silverman; educators and artists.
Ruffalo and Indigenous activist Allie Young of Protect the Sacred, a group focused on empowering Navajo youth, led the effort on the letter.
It’s printed in full here:
To: Jeff Zucker, President and CEO, CNN,
CC: Jason Kilar, CEO, WarnerMedia, John T. Stankey, CEO, AT&T, Josh Silverman, CEO, ETSY, Saeju Jeong, CEO & Co-Founder, NOOM
We, as Native peoples and allies of Native Americans, are very concerned about the continued employment of senior political commentator Rick Santorum and the failure of CNN leadership to address and take proactive steps to correct multiple instances of erasure, bias, and racism against Native peoples at the network.
By ignoring the outcry of the Native community and failing to hold Rick Santorum accountable for his hateful and ignorant comments shared on April 23, you have failed in your mission to be a trusted news source. Allowing Santorum to spread racist and white supremacist views to the American public is reckless and an insult to the dedicated journalists who are tarnished by Santorum’s presence on the network. Instead of removing Santorum, he was given a national platform on Cuomo Primetime where, when asked about his speech, he refused to apologize. Moreover, no Native peoples were invited onto the show or network to explain how Native peoples have been harmed and why Santorum should be removed. In doing this, CNN doubled down on the erasure of Native peoples. Your continued endorsement of Santorum as a voice validates his ignorant, racist, and homophobic views.
This situation has occurred in the context of other concerning incidents. On April 20th, CNN Anchor Poppy Harlow incorrectly identified Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the highest-ranking Native woman elected to executive office in US history, as a white woman. There has been no action by CNN leadership or by Poppy Harlow to publicly apologize and correct the issue on air. The erasure of Lt. Governor Flanagan’s identity is rooted in a dark history of white supremacy and failing to apologize and acknowledge this action is concerning.
During the 2020 election, CNN came under fire for releasing a poll with “Something Else” as a catch-all category including Native peoples. This issue was never addressed publicly, nor was there transparent action on how CNN would change policy and process to include Native peoples. The ignorance and bias that fueled these instances will continue to occur unless CNN actively commits to changing behavior. Change begins with accepting responsibility and holding yourself accountable to the communities you have harmed. Thus far, CNN has failed.
Ignoring, silencing, and evading accountability to Native peoples are tactics of erasure. These tactics are not new. CNN has continuously shown that they are a willing participant in the erasure of Native peoples. This erasure is a form of racism that whitewashes history to uphold ideas of American exceptionalism and reinforces white supremacy. It is a threat to all communities of color. We stand together as Native peoples and allies and call on CNN to correct their harmful and egregious errors and institutional practices in the following ways:
1. CNN must remove Rick Santorum from its platforms and commit to creating standards and policies for their on-air talent and contributors that ensure respect for Native peoples and Indigenous cultures.
2. CNN must diversify on-air talent and contributors and ensure Native and Indigenous peoples are regular commentators.
3. CNN must establish an Indigenous Affairs desk and team.
4. CNN must undergo anti-bias training and co-create processes with the Native community on how to respectfully engage with Native peoples.
Further, these events are grossly misaligned with the diversity and equity statement put forth by WarnerMedia, the parent company for CNN, which states that content should reflect the “diversity of our society and the world around us” and that the company is committed to “preserving a culture of opportunity, inclusion, and respect.” CNN’s actions as to Native peoples have failed to meet those standards by any measure.
We have included CNN’s major advertisers in this letter to make them aware that their financial support of CNN as a public, for-profit news media platform has significant negative impacts on Native peoples. Advertisers’ reputation as companies committed to diversity and equity will be negatively affected by a continued link to CNN, should there be no immediate change within CNN itself. We urge all advertisers to use their relationship with CNN and WarnerMedia to end the erasure of Native peoples in media and, if they fail to do so, to terminate the business relationship.
Media plays an important role in society and for too long the concerns of Native peoples have been sidelined in service of politicking, ratings, and profit. That CNN has three egregious mischaracterizations of Native peoples in just six months demonstrates a profound lack of commitment to their own diversity and equity standards, much less the accurate communication of the contributions of Native and Indigenous peoples to the media and to our world.
CNN must do better.
A CNN spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this month, national civil rights and racial justice organizations criticized CNN for saying nothing about Santorum’s racist remarks.
“By failing to denounce these comments, CNN intrinsically ties itself to a blatantly racist commentator,” reads a joint statement from groups including the NAACP and the National Congress of American Indians. “We call on CNN to take immediate and swift action, including immediately denouncing these remarks, issuing a written apology to American Indian and Alaska Native communities, cutting ties with Rick Santorum, training and educating reporters and pundits on American Indian and Alaska Native culture, white supremacy and anti-racism, and encouraging reporting on race in a responsible and equitable way.”
Santorum has been a guest on CNN at least twice since he made his offensive comments late last month at a Young America’s Foundation event.
“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” he told students at that event. “I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
During a subsequent appearance on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show, Santorum was asked about the controversy. He said he “misspoke” when he made his comments about Native Americans, and that they were “out of context.”
But the context of his remarks was simply that he said them.
He did not apologize.
The Native American Journalists Association has raised concerns about the environment being fostered at CNN and warned Indigenous journalists against working for the network. Other Indigenous-led groups like Native Organizers Alliance and Advance Native Political Leadership have a petition going with more than 18,000 signatures, calling on CNN to drop Santorum and do better with Native representation on their network.
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