I asked a different newspaper publisher what he thought of the already-infamous law enforcement raid on the small-town Marion County Record in central Kansas on Friday. Is it as egregious as it looks?
“If you’re going to shut down a newspaper as law enforcement, you better have a damn good reason,” Dane Hicks of The Anderson County Review told me. “So far I haven’t seen one.”
I cut my teeth as a reporter on a small Kansas newspaper much like this one. But I’ve also navigated the shark-infested political waters of bigger cities. I’ve seen firsthand the soul-crushing power and influence of any town’s powerful and influential. They can stop stories and editorials from even being written. I managed to expose a corrupt sheriff and a pitiful prosecutor, both of whom were driven from office. But I was prevented from ever reporting on a crooked judge.
Nonetheless, I’m aghast at the local police department’s and county sheriff’s willingness to raid the Record, and even editor and publisher Eric Meyer’s home. So was a friend who texted me about it – all the way from Seattle, Washington.
But more so, I’m agog at a judge’s permission slip to do such a thing.
I don’t know the power dynamics in Marion, north of Wichita. Nor do I have any idea what they were after – except that it involves, as the Associated Press puts it, “a dispute between the newspaper and a local restaurant owner, Kari Newell. She is accusing the newspaper of invading her privacy and illegally accessing information about her and her driving record …”
This, after Newell allegedly “threw Meyer and a reporter out of (her) restaurant during a political event.”
It all seems rather petty, actually, particularly to be throwing freedom of the press out with yesterday’s newspaper.
And as the man said, they’d better have a damn good reason for doing it.
Yet, even if they do, it might not hold up in a court of law. The journalistic enterprise is that important, that sacrosanct, that inviolate.
You probably have to be involved in news gathering to fully understand the frightening effect of what Meyer calls the town’s “Gestapo tactics” toward the newspaper. If this raid stands without severe consequences for those who conceived, approved and executed it, that will be an alarming chill on the news gathering process.
Consider: They took computers, personal cell phones and other equipment from the Record and its reporters. Who would engage in tough reporting on powerful people if you risk confiscation of your work and your tools, or the long arm and heavy shadow of the law?
Who would ever talk to reporters, knowing one’s candor might be involuntarily shared with hostile authorities? What would happen to the freedoms we enjoy? Who would keep accountable the leaders we’re obliged to monitor?
Do we really want to put the watchdog down?
“Leaders” today have become all-too-imperious as it is. You see it in the school boards and city councils and county commissions that no longer deign to brook dissent or to televise public comments. You see it in rulers who snap at reporters for asking legitimate questions, if they’re allowed to ask any at all. And frankly, reporters see it in the public officials who no longer stoop to returning messages because they know no one will hold them accountable for it.
City, county and court officials even in — or especially in — small-town America need to understand the inviolability of the journalistic enterprise, whatever the local politics and personalities and power dynamics.
Unless the modest Marion County Record is found to have been concealing Jimmy Hoffa’s long-dead body – and maybe even if it has – then there’s a judge and some city and county law enforcement officers in Marion who need to find other professions, stat.
It’s hard to imagine they really have the goods to justify what they’ve done, not just to a small-town publisher – whose mother may have died the next day from the strain – but to the sanctity of a free press everywhere.