David Hoppe

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:: Mike Pence’s alternative press

by David Hoppe

Three cheers for the Indianapolis Star.

No, I mean it.

It’s been quite something to see how the Star has gone ballistic over Gov. Mike Pence’s attempt to get into the news business.  Matt Tully called the idea “horrible.” Tim Swarens, the Golden Eagle of the Star’s Editorial Board, called it “a really bad idea.”

You’d think these guys wrote for the alternative press.

All this righteous indignation even got Rachel Maddow’s attention. She led with the Pence Just IN story on her nightly MSNBC show.

The guv may still be wondering what hit him.

Tully and Swarens were right, of course, in their characterizations of the Pence Administration’s idea of creating its own news service (led, by the way, by a former Star reporter — a not unpredictable consequence of news business downsizing). As Tully tried to put it: “…the Pence administration had been acting behind the scenes as if it thinks the press should be our government.”

This may actually be wishful thinking on Tully’s part. What the Pence administration seems really to have been hoping was that the government could be the press.

Creepy as this notion is, though, one can understand Pence’s inclination to believe the idea not all that farfetched. Think of Facebook, Twitter, and all the other forms of self-promotion made available by social media. For a fee, enterprising folks will help you or your business generate “buzz” by concocting positive messages.

What the Pence administration’s news service, Just IN, appeared to be gearing up to do was something similar: manufacture buzz, er, information, through the creation of easily digestible feature-style stories, profiles and q&a pieces.

Such pieces would be catnip for scores of newspapers around the state. To say these papers are short-staffed is putting it mildly. They don’t have budgets to send real, live reporters to Indianapolis; they depend on wire service stories and press releases.

Online media have also created an unprecedented demand, or let’s say appetite, for content. While the business model for news organizations has been shrinking (even the Star is not immune; it now operates from atop the Circle Centre Mall, instead of a square block of offices), the perceived need to post something, anything, has never been greater. Pence may have thought he was being helpful, hence what he apologetically called “an understandable misunderstanding.”

In other words, who cares where the stories come from — so long as there are stories.

It’s rather like what Pence’s patrons, the Koch brothers, have done for our state’s legislative process through ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC drafts bills aimed at cutting environmental regulations, weakening gun laws and generally diminishing the government’s ability to intervene on behalf of citizens where corporate interests are involved. These bills are then given to state legislators to carry back to their respective assemblies. The lawmakers don’t have to do anything except put the bills in play. The “Freedom to Farm” bills we’ve seen in Indiana are just one example of ALEC’s handiwork.

Cookie-cutter bills, like manufactured “stories” are bad ideas. What’s worse is that they’re bad ideas whose time appears to have come.