“Governing” the News Media

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By Virgil Scudder

You’ll never find a politician who doesn’t try to have some control of what’s said in the news media.  But now, two of them, both conservative Republicans, have apparently taken the desire a step too far. 

The Miami Herald reports that the office of Governor Rick Scott has banned the use of the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” and “sustainability” by employees, contractors, and volunteers of the state Department of Environmental Protection.  The paper goes on to report that the policy spread to other departments and even resulted in what was effectively censorship of scientific papers that required state approval. 

“It’s not true,” declared Governor Scott, but numerous people who worked for or with state departments told the newspaper that it was true and cited examples.  He has drawn a firestorm of criticism over the issue.
Toning down environmental concerns is said to be part of Scott’s program to reduce regulations to get more industries to locate in Florida.

This would be a hot button issue at any time but it’s more prominent now because numerous scientists have said that Florida is the state likely to suffer the worst damage from climate change.  Scott has previously begged off any questions about climate change with a lame “I’m not a scientist” response.  That, too, has brought him a lot of criticism.

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana came up with a different wrinkle for shaping media coverage, his own news outlet.  His office announced that it would launch a taxpayer-funded government news service that would provide pre-written news stories to Indiana news outlets and anyone else who wants to read them.  Called JustIN, it would feature “news” stories written by state press secretaries.  A Q & A sheet sent to communications directors of state agencies said, “At times JustIN’ will break news—publishing news ahead of any other news outlet.”  In other words, a monopoly on information and a head start in positioning public policies and issues.

We could assume that the “stories” would contain only the administration’s view and not include any comments by those who might dissent.  The common term for this is propaganda.

The result of the announcement was widespread outrage.  The plan was heavily criticized in local and national media which compared the proposed “news” service to the state-controlled media in Communist countries.  JustIN was labelled “Pravda on the Prairie,” subjecting the governor and his state to nationwide ridicule.  The plan was dropped before the first issue could appear, with the governor saying his intentions were misunderstood.

It’s hard to think that good PR pros, if informed in advance, wouldn’t have counseled these governors against such policies.  But, it’s also possible that such advice was given…and ignored.  Politicians often think they know better than the people they hire to counsel them.