The case is a reminder that the United States is no stranger to local powers using their authority to silence what is left of critical journalism.
As the police raided Marion County Record editor and publisher Eric Meyer’s home August 11 (Committee to Protect Journalists, 8/12/23; AP, 8/13/23; New York Times, 8/13/23), his 98-year-old mother was aghast, watching the cops rummage through her things. “She was very upset, yelling about ‘Gestapo tactics’ and ‘where are all the good people?’” Meyer told FAIR. He said that after the raid she “was beside herself, she wouldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and finally went to bed about sunrise.” Meyer’s mother, a co-owner of the paper, eventually told her son that the whole affair was “going to be the death of me.”
And it was. She died the next afternoon. And Meyer blames the police (Daily Beast, 8/12/23).
By that afternoon, Meyer had been fielding calls all day with lawyers and journalists, as the raid on the paper’s offices and his home suddenly made his small-town Kansas paper world-famous. He spoke to FAIR from his office line, because his cellphone had been seized, along with other equipment.
Meyer explained that current town police chief Gideon Cody—a retiree of the Kansas City, Missouri, police department—has harbored animosity toward the paper ever since it started asking uncomfortable questions about his hiring.
The raid was “authorized by a search warrant that alleged identity theft and unlawful use of a computer,” The Guardian (8/12/23) reported, leading authorities to take “publishing and reporting materials that the newspaper relied on to publish their next edition.”
The reason, according to news reports, seems fairly petty, sparked by the complaints of local restaurateur Kari Newell, who had demanded that Meyer and a reporter be removed from an event with area Congressmember Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.). She alleged later that the paper had unlawfully obtained personal records showing that she, according to The Guardian, had allegedly been “convicted of drink-driving and continued using her vehicle without a license,” but that “the paper never published anything related to it.”
But that’s not what Meyer thinks this is really about. Meyer explained that current town police chief Gideon Cody—a retiree of the Kansas City, Missouri, police department—has harbored animosity toward the paper ever since it started asking uncomfortable questions about his hiring (Handbasket, 8/12/23; Washington Post, 8/13/23). Meyer’s paper, after hearing anonymous allegations about his tenure, questioned town leaders as to whether they vetted Cody before hiring him (the paper never published any of the allegations, Meyer said). This led to a confrontation between the paper and the chief, and Meyer believes that the restaurateur’s antics were merely an excuse to exert power over the paper.
Silencing Critical Journalism
When an anti-corruption newspaper in Guatemala gets shut down and its publisher is thrown in jail (Washington Post, 5/15/23), or a Hong Kong publisher known for opposing the expanding powers of police is imprisoned (AP, 10/25/22), Americans might be outraged but figure that these are the tribulations of less open and democratic societies. The Marion County Record case is a reminder that the United States is no stranger to local powers using their authority to silence what is left of critical journalism.
Consider how officials in Delaware County in the Catskills region of New York reacted to the critical reporting of a local paper, the Reporter. “The county stripped the newspaper of a lucrative contract to print public notices,” The New York Times (6/18/23) reported, noting that the county admitted to the Reporter that the “decision was partly based on ‘the manner in which your paper reports county business.’” This hit the paper where it hurts, as the “move cost the Reporter about $13,000 a year in revenue.” This kind of retaliation has occurred in several states, the Times said.
Missouri has seen several attempts to intimidate or impede journalists. In St. Louis, a judge forbade “the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from publishing material from the mental health evaluation of a man accused of killing a police officer” (Riverfront Times, 5/25/23), an apparently unconstitutional prior restraint on the press. Missouri’s then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt, now a Republican senator, “filed a request in June  asking for three years of emails sent and received by… professors while they worked at the Columbia Missourian” (AP, 9/2/22), a clear intimidation tactic towards journalists whose publications are attached to public universities. The state’s governor also pursued a criminal investigation into a Post-Dispatch reporter who found security breaches on a government website, although no charges were ultimately filed (USA Today, 2/12/22).
Officials rationalize many of these actions against news outlets by the fact that journalists received information or witnessed something they weren’t supposed to. But that is, in fact, what journalism is.
The city of Los Angeles sued both a Knock LA reporter and a police accountability group for publishing information about Los Angeles Police Department officers (KTLA, 4/6/23); the LA Times (5/7/23) and other outlets came to the reporter and group’s defense.
And FAIR has covered the prosecution (and an eventual acquittal) of a Des Moines Register reporter who was covering a Black Lives Matter protest (FAIR.org, 3/16/21), and the trespassing convictions of two Asheville Blade reporters who were covering the police clearing of a homeless encampment (FAIR.org, 6/8/23).
National Bad Examples
Officials rationalize many of these actions against news outlets by the fact that journalists received information or witnessed something they weren’t supposed to. But that is, in fact, what journalism is. The point of reporting is not to rewrite press releases or glue official statements together, but to cultivate a trusted network of sources within government agencies, businesses, civic organizations, and other halls of power who pass on the real story because the public deserves to hear it.
Meyer sees the raid on his paper as part of the current moment when “respect for the media is at an all time low.” A lot of that has to do with Trumpism’s hatred of a free press and the branding of all journalistic criticism as “fake news”; Republican voters now use Nazi phrases to attack the free press (Time, 10/25/16) and even attack reporters physically (Guardian,5/24/17). Trump’s election was followed by a spate of assaults on journalists who had the temerity to ask questions of elected officials and politicians (FAIR.org, 5/25/17).
But this sentiment within state power predates the Trump administration. The “War on Terror” gave the second Bush administration an excuse to threaten whistleblowers, and the Obama administration escalated those threats into prosecutions of leakers (Extra!, 9/11). Corporate media often took the side of the government when it silenced leaks to protect state power, especially after Edward Snowden revealed evidence of widespread National Security Agency spying on the US public (FAIR.org, 10/6/16).
The urge to silence high-level, national security leakers like Snowden or Manning is the same impulse that led a police raid into Meyer’s home and his paper’s office.
It might seem quaint to equate the predicament of the Marion County Record with the case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (New York Times, 12/21/20), whose reporting based on Chelsea Manning’s leak exposed potential U.S. war crimes. But the Kansas case shouldn’t be dismissed as provincial. Small local newspapers really are the main source challenging the sheriffs, county executives, and business leaders who call the shots in a great deal of the United States.
As The Kansas City Star (8/12/23) said, Meyer and the rest of his paper “represent one of the green shoots sprouting in a nation of expanding news deserts.” They are the “watchdogs of communities too small or too remote to attract the attention of big metropolitan dailies or TV stations.”
The urge to silence high-level, national security leakers like Snowden or Manning is the same impulse that led a police raid into Meyer’s home and his paper’s office. And the ability of police in prominent news settings like Washington, D.C., to arrest journalists for covering protests without provoking widespread condemnation from media power centers (FAIR.org, 9/26/17) sends a signal to authorities in less-visible venues that critics in the press are fair game. The temptation to swat the gadfly is so powerful at every level that journalists and press advocates have to constantly fight to keep from losing ground.
Meyer is doing just that, and promises to bring litigation. “We’re suing, not to get our stuff back. We want it back, but it’s not crucial,” he told FAIR, noting that this fight was about principles. “The big thing is, I don’t want to set a precedent and fold on this.” He added, “I don’t want anyone to go through this crap.”
When asked what he hopes will come out of this case, he laughed and said, “I’d like to see some people lose their jobs.”