Pence’s news service – threat to freedom of the press?

It was reported yesterday that Governor Pence will be launching a state-run news service called “Just IN” come February.  It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this move has been met with scorn in a number of corners.

Now, I want to be clear that I have not seen a good argument that this move is actually a violation of either the U.S. or Indiana Constitution, and I can’t come up with one myself. So this post starts with the assumption that what he’s doing is perfectly legal.

However, it’s worth noting the principles behind freedom of the press to make a moral and ethical judgment about this new news service.

Freedom of the press was enshrined in the First Amendment primarily to protect the right of citizens to criticize the government. When the John Adams-led Federalist passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in order to stifle criticism, they were met with a huge backlash. Some credit this backlash with putting Jefferson in the White House and ultimately destroying the Federalist party.

Although the Supreme Court never ruled on the Alien and Sedition Acts (they eventually expired on their own), it’s the general consensus today that they were unconstitutional. For the most part, the government cannot punish the press (or individuals) in any way for criticizing the government.

Freedom of the press, then, is generally a restriction of how the government can act with respect to the press, rather than a restriction on what the government can publish on it’s own.

Here’s where we get into ethically tricky waters, however. In the modern world, the press is generally relying more and more on content created by third parties. This is especially true with smaller newspapers, which often don’t have the resources to investigate stories on their own, and rely heavily on (scripted) press releases.

One of the main goals of Just IN seems to be to provide content that these newspapers can reproduce.  In other words, to produce ready-made news stories which can be published by the independent press verbatim. While this might sound very much like just more press releases, because the format will (apparently) be something very much resembling actual reporting, it will be much easier for readers to mistake these stories as something other than administration-approved releases.

Another concern is that Just IN also has as a goal the breaking of news before independent news outlets.  Niki Kelly of the Journal Gazette worried about an obvious consequence of this:

In other words, this news service may act as a ready-made scoop machine, allowing the administration to shape the news ahead of the independent press. Again, there is likely nothing illegal about this. But there seems to be no doubt that the Governor is wading into ethically tricky waters.