What is the role of a community newspaper? Is it to be loved? Or is it to hold the local power structure to account?
Maybe it’s a little bit of both, according to Eric Meyer, publisher and editor of the Marion County Record, the Kansas weekly that was recently subjected to a police raid on its office, on the home Meyer shared with his mother, retired Record publisher Joan Meyer, and the city’s vice mayor. Joan Meyer, 98, died the day after the raid, possibly due to stress stemming from the assault on her home.
Authorities, who apparently broke federal law in conducting the raid without first obtaining a subpoena, were supposedly seeking documents that it claimed the Record had illegally downloaded from a state website. The Record says it was on solid legal ground, and a state prosecutor ordered that the documents be returned to the paper. But the Record was also reporting on allegations of sexual harassment by Police Chief Gideon Cody in his previous job at the Kansas City Police Department, which may have been the real motivation the raid.
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Meyer, Record reporter Deb Gruver and Gabe Rottman, a lawyer with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which put together a letter signed by news organizations and press-freedom organizations, spoke last week at a virtual event organized by the New England chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, moderated by SPJ national president Claire Regan. You can watch the entire conversation above, but here are some edited and condensed highlights.
On a home security video that shows Joan Meyer yelling at the officers who’d invaded her home, getting up in their faces and calling two of them “assholes”: “If you watch the video clip, you would say that’s a formidable woman. And she was also a very kind and gentle person who loved to help people and everything else. But she saw an injustice and she was angry about it.”
On Cody’s motives in ordering the raid: “The chief motivation is that Deb Gruver had information about him from his former co-workers that indicated he probably was somebody you wouldn’t want to have hired. To our discredit, we did not run the story [until after the raid]. We never could get anyone named on the record. This is a guy who went from Kansas City, Missouri, earning $110,000 a year, supervising dozens of people, to Marion, Kansas, supervising two people and earning $60,000 a year. You don’t usually take a $50,000-a-year pay cut, and a huge reduction in supervision, one year before you could have retired from the Kansas City Police Department. So there’s a lot of suspicion here.”
On reports such as this one in The New York Times that some people in Marion thought the Record was overly negative in its coverage: “If negative things happen, you’re going to have a lot of negative news in the paper. It is a little difficult because you have to live in the community. And I’ve been accused of trying to kill the town — that I came back here to kill the town. Well, what newspaper owner would ever want to kill the town that their newspaper is in? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
On having her cellphone physically taken from her and being forced to stand outside in the heat while officers searched the Record’s office: “I poked my head in and said, ‘Hey, it’s hot out here.’ And we’re sweating. And I’m not feeling very well. And he [one of the officers] said, ‘Yeah, you don’t look very good.’ So I said, ‘In the bottom drawer, there should be some bubbly water or whatever. Can you find it? I’d like to get something to drink.’ And it takes 20 minutes for him to get permission from Chief Cody to do that. I’m 56. I have hot flashes. My blood sugar was down because I hadn’t had anything to eat. There was no compassion shown at all. They were just enjoying that little bit of tiny power that they thought they had for a minute. And I despise him [Cody] now. I mean, I didn’t like him from the get-go. But I’m afraid of him. I’ll be honest, I’m afraid of him. I think that he is capable of doing something far worse to me. And I don’t feel great about being anywhere where he’s going to be.”
On how unusual the raid on the Record was: “It’s kind of an odd case where the underlying facts are slightly immaterial, in the sense that these raids are so exceptionally rare that we don’t even track them. I can think of maybe four or five incidents that are possibly similar. Unless it was a journalist at the newspaper who was involved in criminal activity, unrelated to news, this just doesn’t happen. There’s a federal law in place, the Privacy Protection Act, which limits searches. There is no subpoena-first rule when you’re talking about reporting. You can only get it if you’ve got probable cause that the target committed a crime, and the crime can’t be related to news-gathering, with exceptions for national security leaks and a couple of others, neither of which are applicable here.”
On what’s next for the Record: “We’re going to publish the newspaper, and we’re going to still report the news. We might even report a little more aggressively because of this. I like to tell our staff, ‘We’re not competing with Facebook, we’re not even competing with another publication. We’re competing with Netflix. We’ve got to have something that is worth somebody’s time to read.’ And we’ve tried to do that. Our average website visit lasts about 10 and a half minutes, which, if you talk to most of the people who record such things, is a pretty phenomenal number. It’s better than The New York Times gets. And we try to give you something good solid that you can sit down with and enjoy reading.”