Inside Marion County Record, sting of loss — and a warning for American journalism — remains

August 20, 2023 3:23 pm
Marion County Record distribution workers Bev Baldwin, left, and Barb Creamer notify a patron that Wednesday's edition has not yet arrived

Marion County Record distribution workers Bev Baldwin, left, and Barb Creamer notify a patron that Wednesday’s edition has not yet arrived. Staff had pulled an all-nighter in order to publish the weekly paper after police took all their computers and other equipment. (Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector)

Bev Baldwin and Barb Creamer have worked in the back room of the Marion County Record for four years, and their job Wednesday morning was to fold the papers and get them ready for delivery once the newspaper bundles arrived. But the papers were late and, as the only employees yet in the building, they had little to do except answer the ever-ringing phones.

They fielded calls from Montana and New Mexico and Germany and elsewhere from free press supporters trying to subscribe online and having technical difficulties. Other callers wanted to send checks or set up GoFundMe pages for the paper’s legal defense or to contribute content such as editorial cartoons. Baldwin and Creamer carefully wrote down every message, including the ones from news outlets attempting to reach the paper’s editor and publisher, Eric Meyer.

“Not yet, not yet,” Baldwin told one caller who asked if the paper was out. “We’re waiting. It should be here by noon.”

Then, in response to a question about how things were going: “It’s been crazy, just crazy.”

Last Friday’s police raid on the newspaper has thrown the 154-year-old weekly into the center of a First Amendment firestorm. It also signaled an escalation in the war between local authorities and the public’s right to know.

Editor and publisher Eric Meyer gestures during a press conference Wednesday at the Marion County Record. (Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector)


Try that in this small town

In the five days since the raid, the 4,000-circulation paper had become an unlikely symbol of the clash between free speech and creeping authoritarianism, a conflict drawn all the sharper because of its unexpected location: a small town in the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas. Things reached a boil after the paper’s 98-year-old co-owner, Joan (pronounced Jo-Anne) Meyer, whose home had also been searched by police, collapsed and died a day after the raid.

She shared the house with her son, Eric, and after the raid reportedly remarked, “Where are all the good people who are supposed to stop this from happening?”

Her death rated a New York Times obituary.

The police raid was condemned by dozens of news organizations and was a matter of concern mentioned during a White House press briefing. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, said she was in favor of press freedom but stopped short of denouncing the raid. Instead she waffled, saying she would continue to “support the questions” being asked.

But the only question remaining to be answered is why any judge would sign off on a search warrant for the newspaper office in the first place. No journalist is above the law, but all rely on the law for protection from the kind of intimidation and abuse of power that happened in Marion last Friday. Although the Record wasn’t probing national secrets in the public interest, it is afforded the same protections that the Supreme Court defined in the Pentagon Papers decision.

There is also the 2010 Kansas Shield Law, which requires those seeking a reporter’s unpublished notes and other information to use a subpoena instead of a search warrant. In the case of the Record, the raid violated all the norms and went further by seizing computers and other equipment the newspaper needed to publish, an action that amounts to censorship.

Flowers in the newsroom of the Marion County Record on Wednesday from fellow journalists offer sympathy for the death of co-owner Joan Meyer. (Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector)


Bleeding Kansas

The reason for the search warrant appears to be rooted in some grubby local politics involving restaurant owner Kari Newell, who was in jeopardy of being denied a liquor license because of a DUI conviction and other infractions years ago.

Somebody gave the Record a tip about the conviction and one of its reporters verified it using a public online database, according to Eric Meyer, but the newspaper chose not to publish the information. At a city council meeting, Newell reportedly accused the paper of illegally obtaining information about her driving record. The local cops, under new chief Gideon Cody (who came to Marion a few months ago after more than 20 years with the Kansas City Missouri Police Department), ran with Newell’s complaints and, with some help from the local prosecutor, obtained a search warrant from Magistrate Judge Laura Viar.

Interestingly enough, Viar herself has a record of two DUIs in other counties, including an incident in which she crashed into a school building.

The ostensible reason for the search warrant was to search for evidence of “identity theft” and other crimes committed with a computer, but it seems more likely that a magistrate with a history of misadventure with alcohol and driving might have some sympathy for another individual with a similar problem — and just might also think it should be nobody else’s business, especially the local press. Public safety be damned.

But here’s the thing. When is a drunk driving conviction not a public record?

The answer, sadly, is when our democracy begins to erode. When local authorities ignore state and federal law and issue search warrants for newsrooms and read the staffers their Miranda warnings. When they take cellphones out of reporters’ hands, cart equipment out by the armful, and fill the last hours of a 98-year-old woman’s life with anguish and doubt.

It’s easy to make comparisons to Russia or North Korea or Hitler’s Germany. But the targeting of news outlets has long been a staple of the dictator’s handbook. What happened in Marion last week defies such comparisons because it happened in the heartland, in a small town where supposedly you can’t try stuff like this, in a state that was forged as free at the beginning of the Civil War.

While waiting with Baldwin and Creamer, I couldn’t help but think of the 1856 raid on Lawrence by Sheriff Samuel J. Jones and his mob of proslavery followers. This was during Bleeding Kansas, when Lawrence had been established as the free-state stronghold in the struggle over whether slavery would expand. Jones and his band struck Lawrence with the goal of destroying the free-state newspapers there, and succeeded. They burned and looted businesses and dumped the lead type used to print the papers into the Kaw River.

Bev Baldwin has worked in the backroom of the Marion County Record for four years. She was waiting for papers to be delivered on Wednesday. (Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector)


An open door

On Wednesday morning, the back room of the Record seemed outside of time, an island cluttered with the tools and traditions of an age before digital. There were the long, slanted composing tables where the paper would once have been laid out, the assorted trays of now-jumbled type, the lead ingots used to feed the Linotype machine. All of this is unnecessary because the Record, like nearly every newspaper in the country, is now composed and designed on computers and the pages sent electronically to the printer, the Hutchinson News, 65 miles to the southwest.

The Record office is across the street from the Marion County Courthouse, and in the cool of the morning my editor Sherman Smith and I spent some time lounging under shade trees on the courthouse square. At the end of the block were two Highway Patrol troopers, watching from their car. As 9 a.m. passed with no delivery, and the front door of the newspaper remained locked, we grew restless and began to roam. At the dock at the back of the Record building we found an open door and, as journalists do, strolled inside.

That’s where we met Baldwin and Creamer. They were pleasant and told us it was OK to wait inside with them and even offered us some of the Rice Krispie treats — regular and pumpkin — that Creamer had brought to work. Baldwin was wearing a red Trump shirt (unsurprising, perhaps, given that Marion County voted for Trump by a margin of nearly 3-1). She said she wore it because she knew it was going to be an important day. Even though things had been stressful during the past week, she said she had never been made to feel uncomfortable about her politics at the newspaper office or anywhere in Marion.

Creamer said she, too, had a sense that the day would be important, and she planned to save some things — the newspaper when it came, perhaps some other mementoes — for her grandchildren.

Lending a hand answering phones in the back room was Katherine Jacobsen, the U.S. and Canada program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The CPJ is better known for its work defending journalists worldwide, particularly in Russia and Ukraine, but last week it sent Jacobsen to be on the ground at Marion.

Katherine Jacobsen, U.S. and Canada program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, was on hand at the Marion County Record on Wednesday. (Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector)


When journalism works best

As the hours wore on more reporters arrived, either waiting outside the building or setting up in the newspaper’s front office, which was now open. Some of the five-member editorial staff started coming in, as did editor Eric Meyer. He was mostly on the phone, either with his attorney or with other news organizations, but when he and reporter Phyllis Zorn stepped out of the back door of the newspaper for a cigarette break, I took the opportunity for a quick interview.

He said he and his staff, along with help from some others, including the Kansas Press Association, had managed to get the paper out. The only computer available to them was an old machine running Windows XP that had been taken out of service years ago and had a finicky CD drive. They sent the pages to Hutchinson at 5 a.m., hours later than their deadline, but the Hutchinson News had agreed to slot it in for printing as quickly as possible.

“This just couldn’t stand,” Meyer said, starting to sound like the retired journalism professor he is. “If it did, it would be the end of people ever being able to send anything anonymously to a newspaper. It would be the end of newspapers ever being able to pursue a lead. Not just newspapers, but all news organizations.”

Meyer, a registered Republican, said he thought the country was pretty close to that already.

“I blame corporate ownership of media for most of this,” he said. “Journalism works best when the people running it have a vested interest in the community and (not) because they have a vested interest in their bank account, or what they can sell real estate for, or how much they can make by laying people off.”

When the papers arrived via pickup truck shortly after noon, the headline above the fold was big and bold: “SEIZED … but not silenced.”

Jerry Ryan delivers newspaper bundles Wednesday to the Marion County Record. The papers are printed in Hutchinson, about an hour and 10 minutes away. (Max McCoy for Kansas Reflector)


‘Insufficient evidence’

Meyer gave a news conference not long after in which he announced, confirming early reports, that his attorney had reached a deal with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which had by then taken over the case, to return the newspaper’s equipment that afternoon. The KBI said the equipment had not been examined and would not be used as evidence.

Also, county attorney Joel Ensey had moved to withdraw the search warrant because it was now, in his opinion, based on “insufficient evidence.”

While the return of the newspaper’s equipment is an encouraging sign that sanity and the rule of law may still apply in Kansas, the consequences of the newspaper raid at Marion will continue to unfold. Nothing will bring back 98-year-old Joan Meyer. Time is among the most precious things in journalism, as in life, and those five days lost to the turmoil after the raid could have been spent by the Record staff on other matters of vital local importance, such as digging into the city budget.

In Marion and thousands of small towns across the country like it, the local newspaper (or other professional platform) is the only independent source of reliable information. Reporters have never been the most popular kids in town, but recent years have seen a shift in the attitude of local officials that ranges from mild irritation to outright hostility. In addition to low pay and grueling hours, American reporters now have the additional worry of arrest and newsroom searches. The good people eventually did intervene at Marion, but authorities elsewhere may see the raid as a good idea that just might work with some tweaking.

In reading the “SEIZED” edition of the Record late Wednesday, even while I was encouraged by the newspaper’s pluck in refusing to be stifled, there was an item on a back page that gave me cause for concern. It was nestled amid the police blotter, the small type stuff where local departments report on the daily calls they’ve made, involving typically minor offenses such as traffic stops and theft reports.

Under incident reports for the Marion Police Department was a single sentence:

“Chief Gideon Cody has ceased providing a weekly report of police activities.”

Cody might as well be throwing lead type into the Marion Reservoir.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.