Tom Arviso Jr., publisher of The Navajo Times, was presented the John Peter and Anna Catherine Zenger Award for Freedom of the Press and the People's Right to Know on Saturday, when the Arizona Newspapers Association held its 2009 convention in Phoenix.
The award proved a poignant moment for Arviso and the small gathering of newspaper people and educators in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Arviso was genuinely moved, pausing to compose himself more than once. He has taken a long, important, hard road.
The Navajo Times is the largest Native American-owned newspaper in the country, headquartered in Window Rock, with a circulation of 24,200 copies. Tom became publisher and editor in 1993, when the paper was owned and operated by the Navajo Nation and its government.
Tribal government has had its turmoil, among the Navajo and elsewhere in North America. When tribal leaders didn't like what the paper was reporting, Tom and his staff — always, first, his staff — continued the pursuit of truth, enduring personal death threats, burning of his effigy, threats against his property and his people. Always, and with integrity, the Times has pursued information in the face of criticism and threat, emboldened by the encouragement and support of the people. It continues to do so today.
Eventually, Tom persuaded the tribal council to approve for-profit incorporation of the newspaper, and it became the formally independent voice of the Navajo Nation in January 2004.
"When we deal with problems about censorship on reservations we can look at Tom Arviso and the Navajo Nation as great examples of how to uphold free press and protect tribal sovereignty," wrote Kevin R. Kemper, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona, who nominated Arviso for the Zenger award. "I believe that Tom practices and protects freedom of the press with the goal of respecting the dignity of his own people."
That respect for his people's dignity is apparent. Arviso had introduced himself in his native tongue Saturday. That's how people meet one another on the reservation. He spoke from the heart about his wife, his late mother, his father Tom Sr., and of his employees, many of whom were in the room. He was humble, yet proud to do the people's work.
In 1733, John Peter Zenger was arrested and jailed in New York under the charge of seditious libel, because the British colonial authorities didn't like what he wrote. From jail, he continued to edit his newspaper, while his wife Anna Catherine kept the presses moving. When it all went to trial, Zenger was found "not guilty" by a jury. The case helped to establish truth as an ultimate defense in cases of alleged libel, and greatly influenced the public's view of a free press, and of liberty, setting a new nation on a course toward the First Amendment.
Arviso and the Times carry the water today, as do newspapers across this state and nation. They demonstrate why journalism matters, and why newspapers remain important institutions. Newspapers and their staffs get the news, the real news, doing so with integrity and respect, doing their part in a free and open society. Their business model has been shaken — someone observed that no industry chronicles its own travails better than newspapers — but at their core, newspapers make a difference.
It's invigorating and inspiring to hear the story of Tom Arviso Jr., and The Navajo Times. May his example be embraced by all of us in the craft.