Conservatives should oppose Mike Pence’s terrible experiment in state-run media

Imagine if you learned that a Democratic governor with potential presidential aspirations but problems appealing to his party’s base planned to start a taxpayer-funded state-run news operation. You might be appalled at the implications of this decision, and rightly so. That appropriate reaction should not be muted merely because it is a Republican, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is embracing this proposal.

Pence is planning in late February to launch “Just IN,” a website and news outlet that will feature stories and news releases written by state press secretaries and is being overseen by a former Indianapolis Star reporter, Bill McCleery.

“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,” according to a question-and-answer sheet distributed last week to communications directors for state agencies.

The Pence news outlet will take stories written by state communications directors and publish them on its website. Stories will “range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles.”

The endeavor will come at some taxpayer cost, but precisely how much is unclear. The news service has two dedicated employees, whose combined salary is nearly $100,000, according to a search of state employee salary data.

The response from reporters to this development was… not especially encouraging. “Every professional journalist in Indiana should join me in denouncing Gov. Pence’s state-run ‘news service,” Indianapolis Star reporter John Russell tweeted. He was joined by a cadre of similarly incensed political reporters who were not enthralled with the idea that their roles might be co-opted by a public entity.

The uproar forced Pence to clarify on Tuesday that his proposed media outlet would only repackage the news and would not serve as a source information.

“Reports that this was intended to be a news agency, I think just represent an understandable misunderstanding based on some internal communications that I read about in the press…”

“My understanding is that the website that has become a source of controversy was simply to have a one-stop shopping website for press releases and information,” he said. “It’s meant to be a resource, not a news source and we’ll be clarifying that in the days ahead.”

Cold comfort. If the purpose of this venue is merely to disseminate press releases to reporter and average Joe alike, there is no need for the creation of a new outlet. The “newsroom” section of the governor’s website serves that purpose just fine. If Pence’s news agency has the mission of repackaging and spinning news stories with a “voice” presumably favorable to the administration, then it would be an abomination. How would that be distinct from the objective of institutions like TASS, IRNA, or Xinhua?

“Sure, Pence needs to be able to communicate what the state is doing, but communication and reporting are different matters,” The Atlantic’s David A. Graham wrote. “More importantly, it’s an obvious threat to the notion of a free press.”

Graham goes on to note the dubious precedents that Pence could cite in order to justify the existence of Just IN.

Indiana’s project would not be unprecedented. There’s a long history of partisan press in the United States; during World War I, the Committee for Public Information influenced coverage of the war effort. More recently, government bodies from Illinois to Oregon have adopted the tone of news in press releases. The federal government also runs Voice of America, an overseas news service. Tellingly, Congress long banned VOA from broadcasting in the United States, viewing it as a Soviet-style tool that had no place speaking to American citizens. Why should American taxpayers fund propaganda that would be fed right back to them? But the ban was repealed in 2013.

Perhaps Just IN’s first task will be to spin Pence’s decision on Tuesday to expand his state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act – a position that 83 percent of HotAir primary survey respondents considered a vote in favor of Obamacare.

“The so-called Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, as Pence dubbed it, ties benefits to monthly payments by beneficiaries below the poverty line, a first for Medicaid, and includes other features Pence billed as conservative and market-based,” The Huffington Post reported. How Just IN would do a better job of communicating the differences between Pence’s Medicaid expansion and a more traditional variety adopted by blue state governors differentiates from how The Huffington Post framed it remains a mystery.

While this proposal is troubling, there is no need for hysterics just yet. Just IN is not, prima facie, an existential threat to the American tradition of a free press. It would, however, set a troubling precedent. Few conservatives can be comfortable with this use of taxpayer funds. Fewer still should countenance the existence of an American news agency with that source of funding being dedicated to crafting copy with the aim of advancing an administration’s agenda.

Pence and his administration should drop this proposal, and before the rest of the nation’s governors get the impression that Indiana is on to something.

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