Indiana’s Republican governor, Mike Pence, has announced the start of a state-run news service for Indiana. According to the Indianapolis Star, the launch of “Just IN” will take place sometime in late February.
A fact sheet distributed last week to state agencies’ communications directors explains the purpose of “Just IN.” One of the things the service will do, is handle breaking news stories.
At times, Just IN will break news — publishing information ahead of any other news outlet. Strategies for determining how and when to give priority to such ‘exclusive’ coverage remain under discussion.
A target for the new service will be smaller newspapers that have limited reporting staffs. Those papers could use the state furnished stories without having to devote scarce resources to them. But, journalists aren’t sold on the idea. Jack Ronald, who publishes a small paper, the Portland Commercial Review, tells the Indianapolis Star,
I think it’s a ludicrous idea. I have no problem with public information services — the Purdue University agriculture extension service does a great job. But the notion of elected officials presenting material that will inevitably have a pro-administration point of view is antithetical to the idea of an independent press.
Ronald has some “street cred” to go along with his opinion. He received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1998 to train journalists in Moldova on how to function independently from a government-run news service, as they had been accustomed to as part of the Soviet Union.
One major question is, how much will “Just IN” cost Indiana taxpayers? Pence is supposedly a “small government” conservative. The Indy Star says that they have found so far that the two full time employees of “Just IN” will receive a combined salary of $100,000. At this point it is hard to tell what other costs the service may create.
Will this be a press release service, or a Pence propaganda machine?
Mike Pence is no stranger to media. He hosted an Indiana radio show before serving for 12 years in congress. CNN says that Pence has been cautious with the press, often giving details of his agenda to conservative writers before releasing the information to the local papers. His move to create a state run media outlet has some reporters puzzled over how it will function. Niki Kelly, of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette tweeted, “So what happens if I ask a state agency for specific information? Do they write my story before I do?”
“Just IN” seems to be a contradiction of Pence’s stated desire to have the press serve as a check on government. In 2005, he said,
[A]s a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.
A spokeswoman for Pence says that the service is no big deal, it is simply a reworking of the state’s online news release calendar. But, Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, says that the question that can’t be answered until the service begins operation, is whether the service will be used to provide the public with additional details about stories, or whether it will be used to make an end run around the press. Key says,
It’s not uncommon throughout history for governments to do what they can to control the message. Is that done in a benign way because they’re trying to get more info out to the public, or is it done with hidden motivations in making sure their message is seen in the best light possible?
To be fair to Pence, there are several similar examples to what he has proposed. The state of Illinois already operates a similar service. The U.S. government operates Voice of America, as well. But VOA broadcasts are directed at locations outside the United States. And, it could be credibly argued that the Republican party operates Fox News.
The Indy Star’s Matthew Tully calls the new service “Mike Pence’s horrible idea.” In a scathing editoral, Tully says that it is “a propaganda outlet, plain and simple.” He points out that the Pence administration has already been caught removing negative comments from the state’s Facebook page. Tully expects the new service to be nothing more than a way to paint the governor in the best light possible.
Mike Pence, like so many of his Republican brethren, claims the legacy of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. But, when it comes to the press, at least, it sounds like Pence is claiming the legacy of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.