The Media Today

Dangerous threats to local press freedom

August 21, 2023
A makeshift shrine is set up in front of the Marion County Record in Marion, Kan. on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023 with a picture of the newspaper's co-owner Joan Meyer and flowers. (Jaime Green /The Wichita Eagle via AP)

Ten days ago, the entire five-person police department of Marion, Kansas, raided the newsroom of their local newspaper, the Marion County Record, and the home of Eric Meyer, its editor and publisher. Meyer was home at the time with Joan Meyer, his ninety-eight-year-old mother and co-publisher; when he heard a knock on the door, he thought it was her Meals on Wheels delivery. Police confiscated electronic devices and reporting materials—“everything we have,” Eric Meyer told the Kansas Reflector. He likened the raid to something that might happen in Egypt, where the press is heavily repressed; Joan Meyer accused the local police of “Hitler tactics.” When her meal came, she refused to eat it; that night, she didn’t go to bed. The next day, she died. The Record said, in a news story, that she had been “stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief.” 

The raid appears to have stemmed from a quintessentially small-town grievance. A few days earlier, Kari Newell, a local restaurant owner, had expelled Record staffers from an event she was hosting for Jake LaTurner, a local Republican Congressman. Eric Meyer wrote a story about the incident, which Newell criticized on Facebook. After that, a source contacted the Record claiming to have proof that Newell was once convicted of drunk driving—a problem for Newell, since, under state law, that would complicate a pending liquor-license application for her business. A Record reporter used a state website to verify the tip, but the paper didn’t initially publish a story, suspecting, in part, of being roped into a divorce dispute between Newell and her husband. Meyer contacted the local police about the tip; the police in turn tipped off Newell, who accused the Record, at a public meeting, of illicitly disseminating her confidential information. After that, the Record ran a story about her claims, including information on the DUI. Then came the raid, based on a warrant to investigate the “theft” of Newell’s identity.

The story moved quickly from there. National news organizations and press-freedom groups slammed the raid as a flagrant violation of the Record’s First Amendment rights. Meyer told Marisa Kabas, who writes a newsletter called The Handbasket, that, at the time of the raid, the paper had also been investigating claims that Gideon Cody, the local police chief, quit his prior job, in Kansas City, under a cloud of sexual-misconduct allegations; the Record decided against publishing a story about Cody, but sensitive details about him were present on devices seized. The Wichita Eagle reported that the judge who authorized the raid also had a history of drunk driving charges. For days, it remained unclear what evidence Cody had presented to the judge—but over the weekend, the Washington Post reported, citing affidavits in the case, that Cody claimed the Record couldn’t have accessed Newell’s driving records without “impersonating the victim or lying about the reasons why the record was being sought.” The records in question are typically confidential under Kansas law; third parties are allowed to access them in some cases, but the law does not contain any exception for the media. State investigators are now reportedly probing the paper’s conduct in the case

The Record has insisted that it broke no laws—and even if it did, Meyer has said, the police raid was comparable to “bringing the SWAT team out for jaywalking.” By the time the Post reported on the affidavits, a local prosecutor made a U-turn, withdrawing the search warrant for “insufficient evidence” and demanding that police return the Record’s property. (They complied.) In executing the raid, the police themselves may have violated state and federal laws protecting privacy and reporters’ rights. The Record is reportedly preparing to sue the city. Amid all that, last week, the paper’s staff managed to put out an edition. Its front page read, in large type, “SEIZED…but not silenced.”

Newsroom raids are incredibly rare in the United States; Katherine Jacobsen, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the Reflector that she isn’t aware of one ever having happened before. More broadly, though, threats to press freedom are increasingly common—not least at hyperlocal outlets, such as the Record. Last week, the Reflector’s Clay Wirestone compiled stories of attacks on newsrooms that (like the Reflector) are affiliated with the States Newsroom network; he received testimony on everything from violations of open-records law to arrests of reporters. Also last week, the New York Times wrote about the existential financial threat that lawsuits can pose to small newsrooms, focusing on the case of the Wausau Pilot & Review, a Wisconsin news site struggling to pay its staff as it defends a libel case brought by a local businessman, even though a judge initially threw the case out. Sometimes, the threats are even starker: this spring, the McCurtain Gazette News, in Oklahoma, caught local officials on tape talking about killing its reporter. (As The New Yorker’s Paige Williams has written, the paper is so small that it doesn’t have a website—so it printed a giant QR code steering readers to audio of the officials’ exchange.)

Following a national uproar, the officials in McCurtain County were suspended from a state sheriffs’ association; one resigned as a county commissioner. Those involved in the Marion County Record raid could face consequences, too; at the very least, Newell and Cody seem to have condemned themselves to an offline version of the “Streisand effect,” cracking down so hard on a local source of information that they wound up drawing national attention to their alleged misdeeds. Since the raid, the Record has received support from all over; readers as far afield as New Zealand have requested subscriptions, as did “an extremely famous movie producer,” per Meyer. Locals have supported the paper, as well—including a vocal Trump booster who helps distribute it. On the whole, though, the community’s reaction has been mixed: Meyer told Kabas that many Marion residents defended the paper to him but wouldn’t do so publicly—partly for fear, in at least one case, of a police reprisal. Several Marion residents told reporters from state and national outlets that they view the Record’s coverage as overly “negative” about their town. Some supported the raid.

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Tensions between citizens and journalists are nothing new; as Williams put it, “in a small town, a dogged reporter is inevitably an unpopular one.” But the incidents in Oklahoma and Kansas—and others that are similar, if less dramatic—come in the context of both intense anti-media sentiment and the economic dwindling of local news. Combined, these add up to a situation in which local officials feel emboldened to take extreme anti-press measures, local residents are less likely to care, and journalists are less likely to have the resources to fight back—or to do hard-hitting work at all. 

On Saturday, around a hundred mourners gathered at a church in Marion for the funeral of Joan Meyer. According to the Record, “the smell of stargazer lilies filled the nave” and Meyer was buried with a newsprint rose placed over her heart. The pastor, Ron DeVore, noted that Meyer asked her son, following the raid, “Where are all the good people?” Meyer “believed in the good people,” DeVore said. And she was proof that “small town does not have to mean small mind.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.