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Pence’s transparency record provokes mixed reactions

AP Photo/Nati Harnik Mike Pence speaks at a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa in August 2016. Although Mike Pence…

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Mike Pence speaks at a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa in August 2016.

Although Mike Pence has won praise for championing a proposed federal shield law to protect journalists’ sources, the Indiana governor’s overall First Amendment record is mixed.

When he was in the U.S. House of Representatives, Pence several times was one of the two leading sponsors of the Free Flow of Information Act, a bill to protect reporters from being compelled to reveal confidential sources or information. While 39 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws, there is no such protection on the federal level.

The push for a federal shield law has been unsuccessful to date, but Pence’s advocacy for freedom of the press earned him bipartisan admiration.

“He was a terrific champion for reporters and their rights to maintain the confidentiality of sources, and I think that history needs to be noted,” said Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who co-sponsored the bill with Pence. Boucher, now a partner at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, is a friend of Tim Kaine and a Hillary Clinton supporter, and described Pence’s work on the bill as “a sterling effort.”

“Pence is properly seen in that singular context as a friend of the press and the First Amendment,” said Gerry Lanosga, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Media School and president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. However, Lanosga said Pence’s record as governor is “more complicated.”

Pence’s office not respond to Reporters Committee questions about Pence’s views on First Amendment issues.

As governor, Pence was praised by open government advocates for signing a 2013 bill that increased transparency in Indiana’s economic development agency, Lanosga said. Pence also vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed Indiana state agencies to charge a search fee for public records requests.

“The cost of public records should never be a barrier to the public’s right to know,” Pence said on Twitter after vetoing the bill.

But First Amendment groups have also been critical of actions Pence has taken as governor. In April, the Pence administration was criticized for arguing that an Indiana Supreme Court ruling could justify withholding access to email and other documents requested under the state’s public records law. The ruling addressed email held by Indiana’s General Assembly, but Pence claimed that it should also apply to the governor’s office.

Last year, journalists reacted with alarm when Pence’s communications office attempted to create a state-run news service called “Just IN.” The website would have contained news stories about the Pence administration written by his communications staff. Although Pence’s office argued that it would be essentially a new website for putting out press releases, media organizations worried that the outlet would compete with or try to replace independent news sources. Pence abandoned the plan in response to the backlash.

“I think it’s very problematic, given the Trump campaign’s willingness to ban news organizations, or to increasingly go to more friendly outlets like Fox News, when you have a running mate who was considering starting what was seen as a state-run news outlet,” said Michael Calderone, The Huffington Post’s senior media reporter.

But Calderone said journalists have also seen some potentially encouraging signs from Pence as a nominee. In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt in July, Pence suggested that the Trump campaign could lift its ban on certain media outlets.

“I fully expect in the next 100 days, we’re going to continue to be available to the media, whether they’re fair or unfair,” Pence told Hewitt. However, since that interview, reporters from Trump’s disfavored media outlets have continued to see their press credentials denied.  [The campaign reportedly reinstated the credentials in early September for about a dozen organizations that had been banned.]

Even if Pence proves to be a strong advocate for media access, some journalists are skeptical that he can do much to change his running mate’s mind.

“I think he has some influence, but it’s ultimately up to Donald Trump,” said Politico media reporter Hadas Gold.