Freedom of the press isn’t just implied in the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause, although that clause clearly extends to the media. According to historians, the country’s founders wanted to explicitly protect press information-gathering, because democratic processes depend on an informed electorate.
That understanding–that constitutional principle–is what makes a police raid on a Kansas newspaper so appalling. (When a reader first alerted me to this, I was certain there had to be more to the story–that the initial reports must have been wrong. I was the one who was wrong.)
The small-town Kansas newspaper raided by police officers on Friday had been looking into allegations of misconduct against the local chief just months ago, according to the paper’s publisher, raising further concerns about the law enforcement officers’ motives.
The Marion, Kansas police department confiscated computers, cell phones and a range of other reporting materials from the office of the Marion County Record — the sole local paper in a small city of about 2,000 residents. Officers spent hours in the newsroom. It also seized material from one of its journalist’s homes. Eric Meyer, the publisher and co-owner of the newspaper, said his 98-year-old mother passed away the day after police raided her house, where Meyer was staying at the time. He said he believes the stress from the raid contributed to her death.
The background to the raid is particularly telling: the Record had conducted “routine background checks” just before police chief Gideon Cody took office. That “routine check” was evidently informed by anonymous tips the paper received after it ran a story about his candidacy for the police chief position.
Cody was sworn in as Chief in June, after retiring from the Kansas City Police Department in late April. Meyer was quoted as saying that “It was alarming, to say the least, the number of people who came forward, and some of the allegations they made were fairly serious. We were simply looking into the question.”
When a reporter asked Cody to comment on the allegations, Cody threatened to sue the paper, and the department stopped providing routine information to the newspaper. And then,
County magistrate judge Laura Viar signed a search warrant on Friday morning, authorizing the Marion police department to raid the Record. The warrant cites suspected “identity theft” of a local restaurant owner as the reason for the raid.
On Friday, just after the raid, the Record requested access to the probable cause affidavit — the document that would outline why the judge saw reason to authorize the raid — from the Marion County District Court.
But the court’s written response, reviewed by NPR, indicates that document may not exist.
There’s more, and it will undoubtedly all come out as other media outlets investigate the threat posed to press freedom by this episode. But what is especially troubling is that this bit of official thuggery comes at a time when local newspapers are disappearing.
As an article in the Atlantic noted, local newspapers don’t just serve democracy–they also save tax dollars. The article cited a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, revealing that San Juan County, Utah, had paid a single law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees. The story also reported that the firm had overcharged the county, the poorest in the state, by $109,500. Embarrassed, the firm paid the money back.
That one story retrieved for taxpayers a sum that was triple the reporter’s annual salary. As the author of the article noted, funding local news would more than pay for itself.
In addition to providing citizens with the information needed to make democracy work, in addition to the tax dollars saved when government is under the eye of media watchdogs, local newspaper reports feed community , especially in rural areas. A recent article from the Washington Post focused on that function.
At a time when hooligans have hijacked the national discourse with disinformation and paranoia, the Rappahannock News operates in a calmer place where the slow rhythms of rural life are newsworthy — and where, regardless of political views, its readers are unified by a powerful sense of community…
Similar newspapers once bound together communities everywhere. A century ago, The Post, too, carried items on the humdrum comings and goings of local residents. Though the news became impersonal in big cities, community papers continued to be at the core of rural and small-town America.“
As a Local News Initiative official puts it, local news organizations are the glue that hold the community together. When there’s a void of local news, people revert to the blue and red echo chambers and national news sources that confirm their own belief sets, and it aggravates partisanship.”
That Kansas sheriff obviously doesn’t care.