Indiana governor and possible Republican presidential candidate Mike Pence literally made news on Monday as he announced a state-run, taxpayer-funded news service for the state. Run by staff in the governor’s office, the service called “Just IN” (a pun on Indiana’s state abbreviation) is planned to launch in February and will provide pre-written articles to the smaller newspapers and sources in the state. While the governor and his office are saying that this is about news releases in a different format, others are extremely skeptical and worried about the impact this will have on the press’ independence. The fact that Governor Mike Pence is starting what is essentially his own, state-run news service has many asking whether this will be actual news or just propaganda?
The Indianapolis Star broke the news on Monday that it had acquired documents which discussed the governor’s move. In addition to pre-written news stories, the “Just IN” service will also break news about the state government. The venture is being overseen by former Indianapolis Star reporter Bill McCleery and an editorial board comprised of McCleery and the governor’s communication staff. There are currently two employees for the service and their salaries are running to a combined $100,000, which is being paid for seemingly by the taxpayer.
There are at least two very serious problems with this idea based solely on the information provided by the Indianapolis Star‘s reporting. The first is the issue of where the funding is coming from. Should the taxpayer be footing the bill for what could essentially be the governor’s personal campaign machine? Mike Pence is considered a possible contender for the Republican presidential primary and while he has been very quiet about his plans (if any), a news service dedicated to making him look good. Or at least a service that might be less critical of him than an independent press. The line between news and propaganda seems very thin in this venture.
The other problem is that of an independent free press, one of America’s founding principles. There is a reason why freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. Pence and his office have said that this is about providing an informational service to the media, particularly the smaller papers who do not have large numbers of staff on hand to cover state-wide stories. But there are at least some small publishers who want nothing to do with the idea. Jack Ronald, publisher of the Portland Commercial Review, told the Indianapolis Star that “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.” It sounds like there will be at least one paper who will not use the “Just IN” service.
Pence himself has some experience in the media, including as a radio show host. He has previously been virulently supportive of the concept of the free press. So this move seems a little strange. His defense of the move came from Twitter, where he seemed to say that this was all about window dressing and nothing more.
— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) January 27, 2015
Still, how far can this “new look” be trusted?
The Indianapolis Star‘s Matthew Tully seems to have already made up his mind. In a searing negative opinion piece he said that this kind of thing was un-American, even invoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name in his discussion. He also noted the Pence administration’s “light as a football in New England” legislative agenda for the year. Any story that compares Pence to both Putin and the infamously deflated footballs in the Patriots’ stadium is not a positive one.
So is Governor Mike Pence’ state-run service about news or propaganda? A lot of people seem to think the latter. Americans are naturally wary of any news coming from the state. It is part of their constitutional DNA. Despite being a vocal supporter of a free press, Pence has transgressed its cardinal rule: do not take stories written by the government. That is the “don’t take candy from strangers” rule for journalists and they are not going to forget that easily.
Opinion by Lydia Bradbury