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)