Indiana's new "JustIn" — Thankfully, on the way out
February 4, 2015
By Gene Policinski
This "just in": Indiana Governor Mike Pence said Thursday he has terminated development of a state-run, state-funded news operation called "JustIn" which reportedly would have published stories based on state-written news releases about state programs, policies and government officials.
State planning documents reported earlier by the Indianapolis Star said the operation would have reshaped news releases written by state communications directors and published them as news stories on its website — targeting distribution not just to its own audience, but to smaller news outlets likely to run the material as-is, according to one report.
Pence killed the project after critics slammed the approach — one calling the state-funded news outlet "Pravda on the Prairie," alluding to the Soviet-era propaganda enterprise.
Stories from "JustIn" would have included "straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles," according to a state information sheet quoted earlier in the week by the Star. Those state-salaried public relations staffers who wrote the original releases, along with representatives of Gov. Pence, would oversee the entire show.
The governor took pains in his termination announcement to reassure critics the effort was intended as little more than a remodeled version of the state's "calendar and happenings" listings. To be fair, many states have departments, particularly in the agricultural area, that produce "news" in print, broadcast and online formats, including some material ready to be published, aired or posted.
But the Indianapolis newspaper said that its reporters found state documents announcing Pence's project was intended to serve as a "news outlet in its own right" and that it would function "as a voice of the State of Indiana's executive branch."
The U.S. government funds a news operation called Voice of America. But even though VOA strives to objectively present news about the United States to a world audience, it operates under a federal law banning it from directing its content at the very nation it represents. Ironically, when VOA was established post-WWII, it was GOP lawmakers who feared government funds would be spent to indoctrinate American voters to particular viewpoints.
The now-defunct-before-launch project is worth remembering mostly as one very visible step beyond the now-common candidate practice of circumventing the news media via the Web.
It is more than a decade since presidential candidates ranging from John McCain to Barack Obama found blogs, online messaging and such a hugely effective tool in taking shaped messages directly to potential donors and to voters when compared to news interviews, press conferences and news reports of speeches and public appearances.
But there should remain the healthy skepticism that a state-funded, state-directed "news" outlet with ties to political figures and government bureaucrats ever would be able to tell all sides of any story.
Here's where journalistic critics rush in with claims that such an PR operation would be no less biased or faulty than traditional or new media journalists. Really? Suspicion of the motives and performance of journalists is as old as the nation itself. But the Founders still thought it necessary to create a First Amendment provision guaranteeing a free and independent press to serve as a watchdog on government.
Government-funded news media likely just means writing another taxpayer "check" with no "balance" and creating more of "lapdog" than "watchdog." No Ministry of Information revealed "Watergate." No government-run PR department ever produced those searing CBS' "60 Minutes" interviews with squirming public officials about wasted funds and pointless programs.
Champions of a free and independent press certainly should demand that journalists to do a better job each day of keeping an eye on government. And — in Indiana and elsewhere — we ought to rejoice that "JustIn" was just as quickly "JustOut."
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.