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Indiana Governor Under Fire for Creating State-Sponsored 'News Outlet'

Indiana Governor Mike Pence plans to establish a "news outlet" in the statehouse — to be filled with content written by taxpayer-funded press secretaries.

by John Dyer
Jan 28 2015, 11:13pm

Photo by Michael Conroy/AP

Indiana Governor Mike Pence is a Tea Party Republican who believes in slashing public spending and kicking meddlesome government bureaucrats out of the private sector.

So it's understandable that many Hoosiers' jaws dropped when the Indianapolis Star recently reported that Pence was establishing a "news outlet" in the statehouse called "Just IN," that would publish "straightforward news to light features" under the direction of a managing editor and other staff at a cost of $100,000 a year.

"My immediate reaction was 'Oh really? You've got to be kidding,'" Butler University journalism professor Loni Smith McKown told VICE News.

Just IN garnered headlines alright, but not like Pence envisioned.

Indiana political circles are abuzz about the proposed website. Nobody can figure out if Pence, a former conservative talk radio host with presidential ambitions, screwed up and innocently mislabeled Just IN as a "news service," or if he actually thought he might convince gullible citizens and overworked, underpaid editors that content written by taxpayer-funded press secretaries was objective journalism.

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Just IN appears to be in the vein of "branded content," or pseudo-journalism that resembles balanced reporting but often reflects the one-sided agenda of its corporate or political sponsors, McKown said.

"It is confusing enough for the average news consumer out there to discern the difference between news and commentary, let alone public relations," she said. "It is getting harder and harder to discern the what are the blurring lines between news and not-news."

Pence did himself no favors when he tried to backpedal the story using pretzel logic.

"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 told the Indianapolis Star on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, his staff further muddled things when they held a press conference to clarify the aims of Just IN. Indianapolis Star reporter Tom LoBianco posted a steady stream of critical tweets during the event that suggested Pence's staff skipped Journalism 101. "It seems like they're still unsure whether these are stories or press releases," LoBianco wrote.

The governor's aides claimed Just IN was simply a newfangled website for press releases and other official announcements. But even Pence's political allies were wincing as the controversy over Just IN eclipsed genuine Indiana news, like the governor's bipartisan initiative to expand healthcare for 350,000 Hoosiers through Obamacare.

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"It looked to me like it was a central clearinghouse, then somebody got carried away and decided it was going to compete with a free and independent press," said Indiana House of Representatives Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, speaking to the Indianapolis Star. "I think it was an idea gone south."

The project has been dubbed "Pravda on the Plains," a reference to the Russian political mouthpiece, but Indiana University journalism professor Anthony Fargo told VICE News he didn't think Pence was trying to fool anyone. Pence supported a federal law to shield journalists from prosecution when he was Congressman, for example. Chances are, said Fargo, Pence hatched Just IN because he fell prey to the Achilles' heel of all politicians: ambition.

"He's trying to build a publicity arm to forward his race for the presidency," Fargo said.

Follow John Dyer on Twitter; @johnjdyerjr