Pravda on the Plains: Indiana's New Propaganda Machine

From the White House to the Midwest, American politicians are creating—and favoring—state-sponsored media in lieu of the free press.

AJ Mast/AP

Sometimes you can't believe what you read in the press. Can you imagine, for example, that a Republican governor with a reputation as a small-government conservative would try to launch a government-run news service to disseminate information under the guise of journalism? Oh ... wait:

Gov. Mike Pence is starting a state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet that will make pre-written news stories available to Indiana media, as well as sometimes break news about his administration, according to documents obtained by The Indianapolis Star.

The actual scope of the project, "Just IN," remains unclear. On the one hand, an internal document stated that the service will sometimes "break news" with "'exclusive' content." "Just IN, however, will function as a news outlet in its own right for thousands of Hoosiers," one document said. But a spokesman for Pence tried to downplay the move to The Indianapolis Star Monday, saying it was more like a redesign of the current state news calendar. Journalists, however, reacted peevishly.

Should politicians be in the news business? Sure, Pence needs to be able to communicate what the state is doing, but communication and reporting are different matters. It's unclear what the cost of the project will be to taxpayers, though the Star says the combined salaries of its employees will be about $100,000. More importantly, it's an obvious threat to the notion of a free press. State-sponsored journalism is generally the province of authoritarian states—think Pravda or Xinhua. If the government is pushing out information with newspaper-style coverage that looks like the standard press but is actually government ventriloquism, will readers be able to tell the difference?

Just IN comes at time, too, when local media companies, especially newspapers, are forced to cut back on reporting resources and struggle to produce enough news coverage to fill their pages and time. Having pre-written stories on newsy topics available might prove tempting, allowing the government to fill the vacuum. On Tuesday, Pence announced Indiana would accept an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. How might a state-produced article spin that news, as compared to an independent press?

Whether readers can tell the difference is a signal question of the Internet age, with the destruction of traditional journalistic authority. That has had positive effects—democratization allows non-traditional voices a chance to be heard and to hold old-line press accountable. But the atomization of news, with articles spreading through social media, means it's sometimes hard to assess an article's accuracy: Witness the distressing spread of hoax stories on Facebook. There's every reason to believe that government propaganda presented under the guise of reporting could fool readers just as easily. It would be even more pernicious if Indiana press outlets opted to run pre-written news stories alongside standard reportage, giving the state a chance to co-opt the free press' authority.

None of this is to say that traditional media is without flaws—it surely is not. But the purpose of a free press is for journalists to serve as an independent check on authority, an adversarial voice questioning the government. When the media fails—from the lead-up to the Iraq War to any number of charges against the "liberal media"—it's often from lack of independence. Clearly, centralizing the reporting function in a state agency won't solve that problem. (Interestingly, Indiana did not offer liberal media bias as a reason for Just IN, nor did it argue that the press is too negative, as elected-officials-cum-self-appointed-media-critics often do.)

Indiana's project would not be unprecedented. There's a long history of partisan press in the United States; during World War I, the Committee for Public Information influenced coverage of the war effort. More recently, government bodies from Illinois to Oregon have adopted the tone of news in press releases. The federal government also runs Voice of America, an overseas news service. Tellingly, Congress long banned VOA from broadcasting in the United States, viewing it as a Soviet-style tool that had no place speaking to American citizens. Why should American taxpayers fund propaganda that would be fed right back to them? But the ban was repealed in 2013.

What Just IN most resembles is a push by successive presidential administrations of both parties to marginalize the political press corps. (Pence himself might be a member of the crowded 2016 Republican field.) The current administration has raised this to an art. President Obama holds few press conferences. When he grants interviews, it's often to local or non-traditional media—sports journalists or entertainment journalists, for example. Meanwhile, the White House pushes more and more information out directly through its website. It favors Q&As on Reddit and Twitter, where Obama can avoid reporters. The White House says these are ways to reach new audiences, which has some truth to it, and some of the backlash is just the recrimination of a whingeing press corps. But the effect is clear: The president takes fewer questions from reporters who are experts on politics and policy than his predecessors.

This year, the White House even changed the way it distributes the text of the State of the Union. As Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a post on Medium:

There is a ritual on State of the Union night in Washington. A little before the address, the White House sends out an embargoed copy of the President’s speech to the press (embargoed means that the press can see the speech, but they can’t report on it until a designated time). The reporters then start sending it around town to folks on Capitol Hill to get their reaction, then those people send it to all their friends, and eventually everyone in Washington can read along, but the public remains in the dark.

This year we change that.

For the first time, the White House is making the full text of the speech available to citizens around the country online.

Pfeiffer is using Medium in just the way Pence appears to wish to use Just IN: as a method of going directly to citizens and cutting out meddling reporters.

Of course I'd say this: I'm a coddled reporter trying to protect my turf. But it turns out that effective coverage of elected officials, especially outside of Washington, really is in danger. Also on Monday, political scientist Danny Hayes of George Washington University wrote in The Washington Post about new research on the press he's done with American University's Jennifer Lawless. Hayes and Lawless's research offers data to confirm what one might suspect: The shrinking local press has created a less-informed electorate when it comes to congressional districts, their representatives, and locally salient issues. "As the volume of news coverage declines, citizens are less able to identify candidates as liberals or conservatives," Hayes writes. "They are also less likely to say that they will cast a ballot in the House contest." (This is actually counter to the national trend, where the splintered media landscape has resulted in more awareness about national politics.)

If the backlash doesn't shake Pence and Just IN takes off, it could create a template for local and state governments to fill that void. (In a symbolic turn, the managing editor of Just IN, Bill McCleery, left the Star in November.) It's hard to argue that such a shift would be good news, though.