An assault against a cornerstone of democracy

It was the kind of brutal, authoritarian tactics we usually hear about in Russia under Putin or Afghanistan under the Taliban or perhaps the strong arm of the military juntas in Myanmar or Egypt: A police raid on a newspaper, seizing property and effectively shutting it down in an effort to silence journalists trying to hold officials accountable.

But this raid on a newspaper happened in the heart of the United States of America, in Marion County, Kansas. Anyone who cares about press freedom should be ticked off about it, and the fallout from the story offers a clear lesson on the importance of the kind of local news reporting that we are proud to support.

The Marion County Record, a small paper that serves a community of 2,000 people, pushed back against the county police chief Gideon Cody, who had just been appointed in June amid a swirl of questions about his track record and why he had left a bigger job with nearly double the salary as a police captain in Kansas City.

Since Cody ordered the raid last Friday, the paper has received strong support from around the world by those who believe a free press is the cornerstone of a democracy. This week the police were forced to return the equipment they seized including laptops, computers, cell phones and other electronic equipment. After that, the paper was able to get the presses running again with a headline that came out yesterday: “Seized … But Not Silenced.”

The story got rolling with the Record looking into a tip about a restaurant owner who had received a Driving Under the Influence charge. A reporter investigated the story through a search of public records, but chose not to write about it. Still, the restaurant owner Kari Newell complained to police that her privacy had been violated. The new police chief seized on that for what appears to be a pretext to raid the paper, and in so doing to allegedly find out about what information the paper was gathering on his own questionable background in the Kansas City police department.

Bernie Rhodes, a lawyer for the Marion County Record, told the Kansas City Star, “That sure looks like the case, that it was a pretext.”

After all, Rhodes said, if Cody “seized everything, he’d find out what they had on him.”

The Kansas City Star assigned two investigative reporters to the story and seems to have uncovered why Cody was worried: he left the KCPD under a cloud, facing possible discipline and demotion after allegedly making insulting and sexist comments to a fellow employee.

If you’ve been reading my newsletter, you know about the crisis in local journalism and you know that two newspapers are folding every week in America and that there are now some 2,500 communities who no longer have a local news organization as a watchdog. What would have happened in Marion if they had not had their local paper? The answer is that the tyranny of a local police chief would have gone unchecked, and an official who appears to be less than qualified for the post would have never been found out.

That said, the importance of local news does not lie only in the stories of holding power accountable, small papers like the Record also herald all of the heart-warming stories that unfold every day in a small town and the obituaries that tell the history of those who lived there. One obituary this week will be for Joan Meyer, 98, who owned the Marion Record along with her son, Eric Meyer. She died the morning after the raid because, her son said, she was literally scared to death by the police invading the newsroom, calling it a show of “intimidation.”

“These are Hitler tactics, and something has to be done” she told the Wichita Eagle just hours before she died.

Her son said she was agitated and could not sleep after the raid.  By all accounts, Joan Meyer was an impressive woman, a newspaper reporter and editor since 1953, who will be remembered for her impact on the lives of her community and her family.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote a beautiful piece last week about the importance of local news, especially in rural communities, and why we all need to be concerned about their demise. Milbank quoted our Executive Director of Report for America, Kim Kleman, in the piece and highlighted the 600 local reporters we have placed in more than 200 newsrooms across the country.

Writing about his own local newspaper serving a rural community in the Virginia countryside, Milbank put it well, saying, “The newspaper still serves as the hymnal of our civic religion. It’s a tradition that we need to rescue in rural America — and emulate in our cities.”

We couldn’t agree more. And we want to use the spotlight on the Marion County Record to remind our community that we are in the process of calling for applications from news organizations that would like to join Report for America. We have already reached out to the Record encouraging them to apply and to join our movement. And we hope they do.