If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But if it becomes a public relations nightmare, forget it.
That may have been the thinking of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence who was planning to start a state-run news organization that would have offered pre-written articles to smaller news outlets (such as this newspaper), as well as breaking stories about his administration, The Indianapolis Star reported on Monday, Jan. 26.
The taxpayer-funded website, called “Just IN,” would have been “written by state press secretaries” and started operating sometime in February under the direction of former Indy Star reporter Bill McCleery. According to documents obtained by the Star, its stories would “range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles.”
Taxpayers would have paid around $100,000 to get Pence’s news agency writing,
The outlet’s editorial board would have included McCleery and the governor’s communications staff. Part of the rationale appears to be Pence’s desire to bolster smaller news organizations that lack the resources to adequately cover the state government.
Advocates of free speech aren’t convinced. The Pence news plan was resoundingly denounced by mainstream journalists and First Amendment advocates.
“Every professional journalist in Indiana should join me in denouncing Gov. Pence’s state-run ‘news service,'” John Russell, an investigative reporter at the Star, tweeted Monday night, Jan. 26.
Jack Ronald, a publisher of The Commercial Review, a small newspaper in Portland, Indiana, told the Star “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.”
Pence also took heat from the Society of Professional Journalists, which issued a statement, saying it supports freedom of the press as the Founding Fathers intended:
“One must wonder if a government-run publication, which is paid for by taxpayers, could ever be more than a marketing service for those who control the purse strings,” it said. “If history has any lesson, it’s that there is no Democracy without a free press. It’s the Society’s position that the press is not free when elected officials serve as editor and publisher.”
According to administration internal memos describing Just IN, it would “function as a news outlet in its own right for thousands of Hoosiers – transparent in functioning as a voice of the State of Indiana’s executive branch.” Whether intended or not, this implies a state effort to develop its own news audience, a position that would go beyond supplying press releases and would be unacceptable, said Hoosier State Press Executive Director Steve Key.
Word of the idea had prompted swift and biting comments from news outlets around the nation. Pundits likened it to Russia’s state-run news agency; a headline on the Atlantic Monthly website referred to the plan as “Pravda on the Plains: Indiana’s New Propaganda Machine.” Some publications likened it to the North Korean government run newspaper and Al jazeera of Indiana
In its coverage of the controversy, Media Matters for America quoted editors from Indiana who scoffed at the idea of publishing stories from a state-run site.
“You don’t pick up news stories from government agencies and use them as news stories that have been vetted and given the kind of scrutiny that you give to the information that we report,” said Jeff Taylor, editor and vice president of the Indianapolis Star. “There’s a big difference between press releases that can lead to legitimate stories where reporters can ask questions and look into information and sift between factual information and something that might have an agency behind it.”
Mike Wilson, news director at WIBC news radio in Indianapolis, also questioned Pence’s intent.
“It looks like they want to control breaking news,” he said.
Franklin College journalism professor John Krull, who oversees the student-run Statehouse File news service, said the idea is both bad policy and bad politics – especially for someone like Pence, who has voiced presidential aspirations.
“These are seasoned journalists,” Krull said. “The idea that a politician might try to find his way around a reporter to communicate probably should not be breaking news in 2015.”
But a state run news agency at taxpayer expense-the only one in the nation-would be.
Last Tuesday, Pence defended his record as a supporter of the press, noting that as a congressman he backed a federal media shield law designed to help reporters protect confidential sources. On Friday he killed his plan to start the taxpayer funded news agency.
“The Hoosier State Press Association supports the Pence Administration’s move to end development of its Just IN news site,” said Key.
Pence is viewed as a possible presidential contender in 2016. Although he is said to be considering jumping into an already crowded field of potential Republican candidates, the governor has not yet made any overt moves, such as hiring staff or reaching out to key supporters in early primary states.