The Washington Post has published an excellent all-known-facts piece on the police raid against the Marion County Record. Reporters Jonathan O’Connell, Paul Farhi and Sofia Andrade pull together all the various threads of this saga — the Record’s investigation into Police Chief Gideon Cody’s past, the question of whether the paper may have broken the law in accessing a local restaurateur’s driving history, and the Record’s reputation for hard-hitting journalism in a community where that’s not always popular. Here’s a free link.
Tag: Marion County Record
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.
Please consider supporting this free source of news and commentary for $5 a month. Just click here.
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.”
The Marion County Record has dropped the bomb on Police Chief Gideon Cody, whose officers recently raided the newspaper’s office and two private homes. The Record’s Deb Gruver writes that the paper had held off from publication because it couldn’t get anyone to go on the record — but that decision was reversed after other news organizations began to report similar stories, also based on anonymous sources.
Cody left the Kansas City Police Department, where he was a captain, after he was demoted for harassing and demeaning his subordinates. Perhaps the most explosive section in Gruber’s story involves Cody’s unhappiness at having been transferred while he was under investigation:
Multiple sources recalled a conversation in which Cody was talking about his career and mentioned how much he loathed working in communications, or dispatch.
Cody said that if they hadn’t transferred him when they did, he would have found “the skinniest and prettiest girl down there and f*cked her” to force a move.
“I was quite flabbergasted and didn’t know how to respond to that,” a source said. “All respect that was there was lost.”
One source later transferred to another unit.
“As soon as I left his command, I was happy. It felt like a great weight had been lifted off of me,” he said.
Gruver added that one source called Cody “the absolute worst commander I ever experienced” and quoted him as saying: “His ego would not allow him to listen to what anyone below his rank said … a common characteristic of toxic/ego-centric commanders.”
The Record has also posted about a minute and a half of security video (above) showing the officers in the midst of illegally (that is, without the required subpoena) searching the home of Joan and Eric Meyer, the publishers of the Record. Joan Meyer, who was Eric’s 98-year-old mother, died the next day. She comes across as pretty feisty in the video, but she was no match for Cody’s heavily armed men.
At no point have I believed the cover story for the raid — that police were searching for evidence that the Record had illegally obtained documents about a local restaurateur’s history of drunken driving. It has seemed clear from the beginning that Cody was looking to intimidate the Meyers to stop their reporters from probing into his sleazy past in Kansas City. And now it’s all starting to come out.
We’re starting to learn more about why police in Marion, Kansas, raided a newspaper office and two private homes, possibly leading to the death of the newspaper’s 98-year-old co-publisher, Joan Meyer. It’s pretty thin gruel, and it certainly doesn’t justify the police department’s violation of federal law in not seeking a subpoena before making off with the Marion County Record’s computers, cellphones and other materials.
According to Jonathan O’Connell and Jon Swaine of The Washington Post (free link), Phyllis Zorn, a reporter for the Record, may have broken privacy laws by downloading documents pertaining to a local restaurateur’s history of drunken driving and driving without a license. She obtained those records from a state database, possibly by claiming to be the restaurant owner or by lying about her reasons for seeking the documents. (Jim Salter of The Associated Press has a similar story.)
This story has been convoluted from the start, and I’m not going to try to parse all of it here. You can read the Post’s article if you’re interested in the details, but here is some pertinent information: Zorn already had a copy of the documents, given to her by an enemy of the restaurant owner, Kari Newell, and was using the state database to confirm their authenticity. The Record’s publisher, Eric Meyer, reportedly told Newell the paper would not use the records for a story because of the way Zorn had obtained them — although some of the details were published anyway because they came out at a city council meeting. Meyer and Zorn have both denied that the Record broke any laws.
The local prosecutor has ordered that the materials seized by police be returned to the Record.
State authorities are said to be investigating the newspaper’s actions but not those of the police department. Eric Meyer has filed a federal lawsuit. That’s fine, but the U.S. Justice Department needs to undertake its own investigation.
In other developments:
• Danielle Kaye of NPR reports that the Record has compiled an admirable record over the years for its tough watchdog journalism. “Founded in 1869,” she writes, “the paper is known for its hard-hitting coverage of local government decisions and holding people in positions of power accountable.”
• In The New York Times, Kevin Draper writes (free link) that the Record’s scrappy brand of local journalism is controversial among some local residents — especially since Eric Meyer came home several years ago from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where he had been a reporter and editor, to take charge of the family business. Draper asks: “What is the appropriate relationship between a community and a local news organization, and what duty, if any, does it have to be a booster for the places it covers?”
• Magistrate Judge Laura Viar, who signed the search warrant used to in the raid, has her own history of drunken driving, reports Chance Swaim of The Wichita Eagle. Viar “was arrested at least twice for DUI in two different Kansas counties in 2012, a Wichita Eagle investigation found.”
• The Kansas City Star has confirmed earlier reporting by Marisa Kabas of The Handbasket that Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody left his previous job at the Kansas City Police Department after being accused of sexual misconduct. The Star’s paywall appears to be impenetrable, but Kabas writes that the Star found Cody was demoted after he allegedly disparaged a female officer and made sexist comments. Rather than accept the demotion, Cody took the job in Marion. Eric Meyer says the Record was reporting on Cody’s past at the time of the raid.
- The New York Times pays tribute to Kansas newspaperwoman Joan Meyer (Aug. 16)
- Kansas police chief claims secret information to justify newspaper raid (Aug. 14)
- Kansas newspaper publisher’s 98-year-old mother dies after police raid her home (Aug. 13)
- Nobel winner weighs in on a shocking police raid against a newspaper: “It’s happening to you now” (Aug. 12)
Shortly after the police raid on the Marion County Record and the death of its 98-year-old co-publisher, Joan Meyer, most news outlets spelled her name “Joan.” Then The New York Times came along and, in an otherwise lovely tribute, spelled her name “Joann.” A lot of us decided we were wrong, and I went back and changed everything. Now it turns out that it was the Times that couldn’t spell her name properly. It is, in fact, “Joan,” though it’s pronounced “jo-ANN.”
Over the past 24 hours there have been some stunning new developments in the case of the Marion County Record, whose office was raided by police Friday. Also targeted were the homes of publisher Eric Meyer and a vice mayor.
• Meyer’s 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, who was home when police burst in home on Friday, collapsed and died Saturday afternoon, possibly as a result of stress stemming from the raid. Joan Meyer was the co-owner of the Record, which reports:
She had not been able to eat after police showed up at the door of her home Friday with a search warrant in hand. Neither was she able to sleep Friday night.
She tearfully watched during the raid as police not only carted away her computer and a router used by an Alexa smart speaker but also dug through her son Eric’s personal bank and investments statements to photograph them. Electronic cords were left in a jumbled pile on her floor.
• Initial reporting by the nonprofit Kansas Reflector suggested that the raid was somehow tied to a case involving documents provided by an anonymous source with regard to a local caterer who lacked a driver’s license and who had been convicted of drunken driving. But now it appears there may have been more — much more — behind the raid. Maria Kabas, who writes a newsletter called The Handbasket, interviewed Eric Meyer on Friday and writes:
What has remained unreported until now is that, prior to the raids, the newspaper had been actively investigating Gideon Cody, Chief of Police for the city of Marion. They’d received multiple tips alleging he’d retired from his previous job to avoid demotion and punishment over alleged sexual misconduct charges.
• The Marion County Police Department is defending its actions, according to Sherman Smith of the Kansas Reflector. Citing a post on the department’s Facebook page, Smith reports that the department acknowledges its actions were prohibited by the federal Privacy Protection Act — but that the department is claiming an exception to the law because the newspaper itself was suspected of committing a crime. Under the law, police need a subpoena, not just a search warrant, to confiscate materials from journalists. Smith’s story includes this:
“It appears like the police department is trying to criminalize protected speech in an attempt to sidestep federal law,” said Jared McClain, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm.
“The First Amendment ensures that publications like the Marion County Record can investigate public officials without fear of reprisal,” McClain said. “It chills the important function of journalism when police raid a newsroom, storm the homes of reporters, seize their property and gain access to their confidential sources. That’s precisely why we must hold accountable officers who retaliate against people who exercise their First Amendment rights.”
This shocking abridgment of the First Amendment has not yet quite broken through to the mainstream. Although CNN and USA Today have both reported on it, The New York Times and The Washington Post have not. I’d be surprised if they’re not working on stories right now. Heather Cox Richardson, in her Letters from an American newsletter, has a solid overview and relates it to the destruction of antislavery editor Elijah Lovejoy’s presses — and his ultimate assassination — in 1837.
What is unfolding in Kansas is one of the most nauseating attacks on freedom of the press that I’ve seen in my lifetime. Every officer involved, as well as the police chief and any officials who ordered the raid, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Charges in the death of Joan Meyer should be considered as well. And since the police appear to have violated federal law, Attorney General Merrick Garland needs to pay a visit as soon as he can manage to buy a plane ticket.
- Nobel winner weighs in on a shocking police raid against a newspaper: “It’s happening to you now” (Aug. 12)
How stunningly authoritarian was a police raid on a newspaper office in Marion, Kansas? Here’s an indication: When independent media reporter Brian Stelter posted about it Friday night on the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, among those responding was Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist who won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous resistance to her own country’s authoritarian regime.
“It’s happening to you now … death by a thousand cuts,” she wrote.
The shocking raid, conducted Friday afternoon, was aimed at seizing computers, cellphones and other materials from the Marion County Record, whose owner and publisher, Eric Meyer, is a former journalist for the Milwaukee Journal and a former journalism professor at the University of Illinois. According to the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news outlet, the police action threatened Meyer’s ability to publish his paper — which, after all, may have been the point.
Meyer told the Reflector that the authorities were trying to send him a message: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
What’s especially weird about all of this is that involved a rather quotidian matter. The Reflector has been reporting on a restaurant owner who did not have a driver’s license and had been convicted of drunken driving, thus threatening her catering business. According to the Record’s own coverage of the raid, officers descended on the Record’s office as well as Meyer’s home, where they seized technology used by his 98-year-old mother to watch television and photographed Eric Meyer’s personal financial documents. The home of a vice mayor was targeted as well.
The Reflector’s journalism is licensed under Creative Commons, and news outlets are free to republish it. Below is the full story:
Police stage ‘chilling’ raid on Marion County newspaper, seizing computers, records and cellphones
By Sherman Smith, Sam Bailey, Rachel Mipro and Tim Carpenter | Aug. 11, 4:15 p.m.
MARION — In an unprecedented raid Friday, local law enforcement seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the Marion County Record office, the newspaper’s reporters, and the publisher’s home.
Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the newspaper, said police were motivated by a confidential source who leaked sensitive documents to the newspaper, and the message was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
The city’s entire five-officer police force and two sheriff’s deputies took “everything we have,” Meyer said, and it wasn’t clear how the newspaper staff would take the weekly publication to press Tuesday night.
The raid followed news stories about a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, and revelations about the restaurant owner’s lack of a driver’s license and conviction for drunken driving.