Q: When does the conservative governor of a majority-Republican state start to resemble an old-line Communist apparatchik?
A: When he uses taxpayer money to fund government-approved “journalism” to compete with privately-owned, independent news outlets.
Thus Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a former radio talk jock, is suffering near-universal ridicule, even from fellow Hoosier Republicans, for his plan to launch “Just IN,” by most accounts an online multimedia state-supported news operation to be written, produced and edited out of the governor’s office.
“How Soviet of him!” quipped newspaper publisher and former editor Jack Ronald, whose small daily, The Commercial Review, serves 5,000 readers in Portland, Ind., near the Ohio border.
“State-run media? I feel like that’s unprecedented,” said Indiana Senate Minority Leader Timothy Lanane, one of 10 Democrats among 40 Republicans in the state Senate, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I don’t think we do that here in this country.”
Jabs at a Republican chief executive by an ink-stained wretch and a veteran Democrat are entirely predictable—“dog-bites-man,” in newspaper parlance. But a nasty dig from a fellow Republican, an extremely powerful one at that, is positively devastating.
“I was very surprised to see the news report last evening,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, referring to an eye-popping scoop in the Indianapolis Star. “Let’s just say it certainly didn’t look good, the way it was depicted.”
The speaker, a sometime rival of Pence’s who is widely assumed to be a future gubernatorial candidate himself, went on: “I understand the governor has indicated he’s going to be issuing some clarifying remarks, so I’m withholding final judgment until that occurs. In the meantime, just in case, I have had my staff contact Rosetta Stone and I do have a new Russian version that will be coming out shortly.”
Presumably, Speaker Bosma was joking. He ended the phone interview with a hearty “Dasvidaniya!”
Indeed, reaction to the Star’s revelation on social media and from various news outlets has generally been withering.
“Pravda on the Plains,” and “Izvestia in Indiana,” were some of the epithets being hurled at Pence on Twitter.
An opinion column on the web site of Chicago’s CBS station WBBM—which broadcasts into northwestern Indiana—was titled “Welcome to the Gulag, Love Mike Pence.”
Fox News pundit Erick Erickson seems to have been an outlier when he tweeted a defense: “The outrage from the press over Mike Pence’s new plans makes me think he has it right. Obama propagandists most outraged.”
In some ways, Gov. Pence’s bold venture is completely understandable. Like a lot of politicians, especially Republican politicians, he apparently feels that he doesn’t always get a fair shake from the liberal lame-stream media.
And whenever an elected official such as Pence is portrayed in an unflattering light, or endures the indignity of policy missteps and personal foibles being turned into lurid headlines, he’s apt to gripe and grumble, claim to be the victim of “gotcha” journalism, write an angry letter to the editor, and even muse out loud about starting his own damn news outlet to tell the truth for a change. Usually it goes no further than venting.
But this time, with the help of Indiana’s taxpayers, the 54-year-old governor seemed actually to be doing it.
“Just IN…will function as a news outlet in its own right for thousands of Hoosiers—transparent in functioning as a voice of the State of Indiana’s executive branch,” says an official memo sent to the communications directors of various state agencies late last week and leaked to Star reporter Tom LoBianco.
“Stories will range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles, ‘place’ profiles, Q-and-A interviews, Top-5 and Top-10 lists, etc.,” the memo continues.
“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.”
The author of the memo, former Star reporter Bill McCleery, a 21-year veteran of Indiana journalism, recently left the paper to work in Pence’s office with the title of “managing editor” for $60,000 a year.
An assistant managing editor, meanwhile, is being paid $35,000, according to LoBianco, and the preliminary design of “Just IN”’s web site probably cost additional money since it seems to have been delegated to an outside contractor.
Speaker Bosma—who enjoys a 71-29 supermajority in the Republican-controlled Indiana House—suggested that whatever the cost of “Just IN,” it will probably have to come out of the already-appropriated executive budget, and can likely be spent at the governor’s discretion.
“I’m assuming this would come from the budget for the governor’s office and no legislative action is needed,” he said. “But I would not predict it would be granted if requested, either.”
Reached by The Daily Beast, “Just IN” Managing Editor McCleery declined to comment; the governor’s communications director and press secretary, likewise, didn’t respond to email and voicemail messages.
They were obviously caught flat-footed by LoBianco’s scoop, and spent much of Tuesday trying to figure out how to reframe, walk back, or otherwise neutralize the story, which interfered with the “executive competence” message intended by Pence’s morning news conference announcing the expansion of the state Medicaid program under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The governor, for his part, attempted some damage-control of his own, phoning Star columnist Matthew Tully—who ripped him a new one Tuesday for the “Just IN” project—to claim that, contrary to McCleery’s memo, he’ll “see to it” that it’s “just a clearinghouse” for news releases.
“I want to make clear my strong affection for a free and independent press,” Tully’s tweets quoted the governor, a possible 2016 presidential candidate. Tully added: “Pence said staff internal docs ‘created understandable concern.’ Also noted he authored media shield bills in Congress.”
Later on, the governor tried to distance himself further from his apparently rogue staff members who send out nutty memos.
"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,” Pence said.
“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,” Pence added. “It’s meant to be a resource, not a news source and we’ll be clarifying that in the days ahead.”
Probably not via “Just IN,” however.