The accounts of a police raid at the Marion County Record, a newspaper in Kansas, are disturbing, not only to newsrooms across the country like ours here in Vineyard Haven, but to democracy worldwide.
According to major news outlets, police raided the weekly paper, seizing computers, phones, and other items from reporters, editors, and the owners, as well as a city official. A local judge gave permission for the search warrant based on information that a reporter at the paper had not properly accessed records about the driving records of a local businesswoman. But Record representatives say they legally accessed information from a public database, finding the woman was driving without a license after receiving a DUI. They shared those records with local officials, but never published anything about it. The paper had also investigated anonymous tips about sexual misconduct claims against the city’s police chief while at a previous job.
The county attorney, following broad condemnation of the seizures, ordered all of the materials to be returned to the newspaper. Miraculously, the Record was able to put out last week’s paper a few days after the raid — hobbling together stories with a sports reporter and a photographer’s computers — with the bold headline, “Seized … But Not Silenced” in a banner large-font headline.
It’s a wild story, with more details fit to print, but to the greater question of why this is relevant to our Island, the raid leaves newspaper organizations across the country wondering: If we investigate a local police department, local officials, or local businesses, will law enforcement come pounding on our door? With newspapers already on shoestring budgets, can we afford court battles? Will our staff want to deal with that? What other news organizations have faced such retaliation, but didn’t make the mainstream media?
In the age of corporate takeovers, social media, artificial intelligence, and everything else, we hope that government and police overreach isn’t another slice against local newspapers in a death by a thousand cuts. According to the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the country has lost a quarter of its newspapers, mostly weeklies, over the past two decades, an astonishing number.
Newspapers, and the communities that they cover and protect, have never been in greater need of the courts to stop government overreach, which is exactly what didn’t happen in Marion, Kan.
The Times would like to be on record strongly condemning the police department’s actions, and to persuade any local law enforcement agency to never go to such lengths here.
There are some similarities with The Times and the Record that are worth pointing out. The New York Times recently published a story that the Record was known by some in the community for being a bit of a troublemaker, or, as editor Eric Meyer said, they were doing their job as a “watchdog with aggressive reporting.” The New York Times story suggests that the raid was the culmination of some tension between the newspaper and some in the community. Unofficially, our newsroom here in Vineyard Haven has been described in those same dogged terms, committed to holding public officials accountable, a tag that we’re proud of.
First, there is no indication that any local police department would ever raid The Times. Some of our work, which has been praised by regional press associations, includes uncovering embarrassing moments about our local police departments, and holding public officials accountable. And while accessing those records had its challenges, we were never raided. But what happened in Kansas does remind us of how fragile our democracy is, and how we’re not far off from some countries where state media rules the day, and independent journalists are constantly under attack, if not killed. It only takes a reckless police chief and a bad judge.
In fairness, raids on newspaper organizations are incredibly rare in the U.S., because they are illegal. There are broad protections against news organizations. Police can access a search warrant when someone’s life might be at stake, or if staff broke the law, but that’s after all other investigative options have been exhausted, which doesn’t seem to have happened in Kansas.
There’s also been broad support for the Record. According to the editor, their subscribers have grown by 50 percent, with new readers from around the world buying subscriptions.
And First Amendment and press advocates have shown their support. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent a letter, signed by many national media outlets, to the Marion Police Department, condemning their actions. The letter states that seizing the equipment substantially interfered with the Record’s “First Amendment–protected newsgathering,” and risked “chilling the free flow of information in the public interest more broadly.”
We’re hopeful the reaction to the raids will further dispel any ideas of doing it again, whether in Kansas or here on the Vineyard.