By Tim Swarens
Jan 30, 2015
The public relations disaster known as Just IN would have been galling for any governor. But especially so for Mike Pence, who's worked hard for years to cultivate good working relationships with journalists on the state and national levels.
Those relationships were severely strained this week after The Star's Tom LoBianco reported that the administration planned to roll out a website that would break "news stories" and distribute content to media outlets in the state. A managing editor had been hired to direct the site with the help of an "editorial board."
The initial reaction inside journalism circles, and from much of the public, was incredulous: What in the world are they thinking?
Then came the outrage.
As strong as the push back has been inside the state, it's had an even sharper edge on the national level. The Atlantic, for example, denounced the Pence team's plans with this headline: "Pravda on the Plains: Indiana's New Propaganda Machine."
The words Pravda, propaganda and Pence in the same article is the stuff of nightmares for a governor said to be contemplating a long-shot run for the presidency. The future attack ads almost make themselves.
And it's sadly ironic that this mess ensnared Pence, who is habitually cautious about what he says and how he says it.
After a series of "clarifying" statements on Tuesday and Wednesday about the website's purpose and intent, the governor arrived at the only reasonable conclusion: The project had to be shut down.
He broke that news in a phone call to me on Thursday afternoon.
During our conversation, Pence reiterated his commitment to government transparency and his respect for a free press. He also said he regrets the perceptions created by what he acknowledged was an ill-conceived plan, the details of which he said he learned by reading The Star's original story on Just IN.
This debacle is by far the worst of Pence's two years in office, and came at an especially inopportune time.
In addition to the "Will Pence Run?" watch, which at least until this week was still gaining fuel from the national media, the firestorm that engulfed Just IN also scorched the announcement of a major policy win for the governor and his team. After months of negotiations, Pence secured federal sign-off on his Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0, an effort to provide lower-income Hoosiers with access to health insurance.
But instead of a victory lap, Pence this week has been bogged down in trying to explain the intentions behind a far less important project — a public relations clearinghouse billed as a source for news.
As I argued on Tuesday, it was a doomed effort, devoid from the start of any shred of credibility. And it deserved to be killed swiftly.
On Thursday, Pence reached that conclusion himself. But not before he had been badly bruised.