By Matthew Tully
Jan 30, 2015
One can only imagine how the state-run, taxpayer-funded Mike Pence News Service would have covered some recent news stories.
Take the governor's mind-boggling decision in October to turn his back on an all-but guaranteed $80 million federal grant that could have funded preschool programs for thousands of low-income Indiana children. The likely Pence Propaganda Service headline: "Governor generously steers $80 million federal grant to the children of Iowa."
Or how about the ongoing battles between the governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz? Well, I don't know what the headline would be. But my guess is the reader comments section would prohibit all of those reminders that Ritz got 57,000 more votes than Pence did in the 2012 elections.
Think that's far-fetched? Yeah, right. After all, this is the same administration that got caught awhile back deleting pesky negative comments from its state-run Facebook page. Hey, every administration has its own rosy view of how it's doing. I get that. But the Pence team apparently wants to sell that view as hard news.
When creating our government, our Founders put freedom of the press into the Constitution. Right there in the First Amendment. And while backtracking commenced Tuesday, the Pence administration had been acting behind the scenes as if it thinks the press should be our government.
A state-run news agency? What in the name of Vladimir Putin is the Pence administration thinking? His administration is calling it "Just IN." But, I'm sorry, that's the last time you'll ever hear me call it that. This is a propaganda outlet, plain and simple. This is a politician, one who already has an army of press secretaries, trying to seize more control of what you read about the things he says and does.
That ain't America, folks.
As my colleague Tom Lo Bianco reported Monday afternoon, the Pence administration is creating the news service to break news and push out feature stories, including "personality profiles." (I'm envisioning a flattering one on the Koch brothers.) According to documents LoBianco uncovered, the propaganda service is intended to serve as a "news outlet in its own right" and will function "as a voice of the State of Indiana's executive branch." It will seek to get its work published, apparently in smaller papers statewide in addition to its website.
In recent months the administration has hired staff, including a former journalist. They have written test stories and quietly worked toward a launch date.
So if you're wondering why the Pence administration has no real legislative agenda to speak of this year, why its State of the State address was as light as a football in New England, it's apparently because the administration has been spending its time not on making news but rather manufacturing it.
I'm sure many people have been asking the same question that a Star reader named Becky Martin Kevoian asked on Facebook Monday: "How is this even remotely a function of our state government?"
The answer: It's not. But it has been a huge embarrassment for the governor.
The story spread fast Monday afternoon. When I Googled "state-run news agencies" while writing this column Monday night, the first page of links included two reports about Putin, three more about North Korea, and six about Mike Pence.
The governor seemed to understand the damage. The day after the story broke, 16 hours after the first version of this column was posted online, he called to insist there had been a misunderstanding. He said he had little knowledge of what his staff had been working on and would "see to it" that the new operation did little more than collect press releases into one big clearinghouse.
Internal documents, he told me, "used language that I think was subject to misinterpretation. I regret that. My administration has been committed to transparency and the public's right to know."
As for references in the documents that portrayed the new operation as a journalistic enterprise: "I don't know where that came from. That was the first I heard of anything like that."
Honestly, this is one of those stories that seems phony when you first hear it: The state's conservative governor creating a news agency, funded by taxpayers. You can't make this stuff up. Unless you work at The Onion, I guess.
It was nice to hear the governor put distance between his team's document and what he says will be the reality. Still, questions remain: Will it allow counter voices in its so-called news service? Will it offer anything close to honest reporting? Will it live up to the limited scope Pence outlined Tuesday? Who came up with this idea and how did it move forward without the governor knowing much about it?
There are many questions. But as I wrote this column I struggled with one question more than any other: Was I more offended as a journalist, as an American or as a taxpaying Hoosier. The answer was all of the above.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter.com/matthewltully.