Hoosier Pravda?

There’s probably more smoke that fire in the insta-controversy that’s broken out over “Just IN,” an initiative by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to set up a primary source for state government news. The Indianapolis Star‘s Tom LoBianco looks on it unhappily as a government effort to compete with the Fourth Estate:

Gov. Mike Pence is starting a state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet that will make pre-written news stories available to Indiana media, as well as sometimes break news about his administration, according to documents obtained by The Indianapolis Star.

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….

One target audience for the governor’s stories would be smaller newspapers that have only a few staffers. But not everyone thinks the approach best serves the public interest.

“I think it’s a ludicrous idea,” said Jack Ronald, publisher of one such newspaper, the Portland Commercial Review. “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.”

LoBianco is undoubtedly correct that this kind of “service” is intended to supply content that will simply be reprinted or read over the air in low-budget news outlets–especially rural and small-town weekly newspapers and radio stations–that have no resources of their own to cover state government. But this is a very, very old story. Virtually everywhere state agencies have long had media operations of their own. Back in Georgia we called agency media contacts “public information officers” (I was one for a while with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs); they are apparently called “state communications directors” in Indiana. It may be that the main purpose of “Just IN” is to exert control over these people (in Tennessee back in the day, I recall from a briefing there in the 1990s, agency PIOs were actually appointed by and reported to the governor’s press secretary, in an overt form of centralized press relations management), or to glean their content for the greater glory of Mike Pence. It appears it will on occasion preempt agency releases so as to “break” news under the aegis of the administration. That could well reduce rather than increase the official flow of propaganda–excuse me, I mean news–from the state.

As for the “pre-written news story” charge, which seems to be the basis for accusing Indiana of competing with independent media, I’m afraid that’s the whole idea of that hoary instrument for media manipulation, the press release. At least when I was writing them for state agencies and governors in Georgia, releases were written so that they could be immediately appropriated by hard-pressed (or lazy) reporters and editors who would, we hoped, just “rip and read.”

So I don’t know that anyone should be hinting that Pence is setting up some sort of Hoosier Pravda. The bigger question is whether he’s doing anything worth touting.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.