Wanted: A damn good reason

All hell broke loose out at the Marion Record newspaper office in Marion last week. 

Now a 98 year-old woman – the co-owner of the paper – is dead. A judge there and the chief of police have a lot of explaining to do. If you’re going to shut down a newspaper and confiscate its records and cause a woman’s death in the process, you’d better have a damn good reason.

It’s not the kind of story we typically see a lot of in Kansas or thankfully anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. Despite the polarization in American culture right now and the outright hatred some have for the media, most Americans have enough understanding of our values to recognize you don’t destroy a newspaper. When pro-slave terrorists sacked Lawrence in the lead up to the Civil War, newspapers were their first targets. Newspapers – journalists in general – who do their jobs make enemies. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Marion County Record publisher/editor Eric Meyer

 In the handful of days since Friday’s police raid on the Marion County Record there have been a lot of comparisons to authoritarian attacks on press freedom, but the fact is that right now the rest of the world just doesn’t know what’s going on there. It’s a typical local mess with personalities and politics and somebody – we’ll eventually find out who – crossed the line.

A handful of facts are clear: Marion police and county sheriff’s deputies simultaneously raided the home of the publishers and the newspaper office of the little weekly newspaper on Friday. The stress likely caused 98 year-old Joan Meyer, wife of the late publisher Bill Meyer and mother of present editor and publisher Eric Meyer, to collapse and pass away Saturday after the raid.

Marion, Kansas, police chief Gideon Cody

The search warrant points toward allegations of identity theft – that the paper somehow accessed private records of a local woman with whom the paper had been feuding – a woman who had a previous DUI arrest and who was trying to get a liquor license in town. Eric Meyer says a source provided information about Kari Newell’s DUI to the paper, and the Record confirmed it with a public records search, then never used the info in a story anyway. He did publish a story about Newell throwing him and a reporter out of a meeting at her restaurant where Congressman Jake LaTurner was speaking weeks prior. Whether Meyer has evidence on his computer implicating him in a crime presumably will be confirmed or dispelled once the cops are done pilfering through the Record’s data.

Kansas 8th District Magistrate Judge Laura Viar

More interesting is reporting from MSNBC contributor Marisa Kabas published in her Substack blog, who says Eric Meyer told her the computers also include names of former co-workers of Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody, hired by the city a few months ago, who told the newspaper Cody left his previous job over allegations of sexual misconduct, but got hired in Marion anyway. For his part, Cody claims on the PD’s Facebook page local law enforcement will be vindicated of effectively derailing the paper when all the facts come out.

Another wrinkle is in the documentation for the search warrant itself. Eighth District Magistrate Judge Laura Viar signed the search warrant, but there seems to be no laying hands on the probable cause affidavit completed by the investigating agency which gives the evidence to justify violating the newspaper and its publishers’ rights by conducting a forcible search. The Review and numerous others have requested that document, but it can take up to 10 days to be turned over, presuming it exists.

For his part, Eric Meyer apparently somehow managed to cobble enough equipment together to get his paper out this week. In whatever state it is, considering all his newsgathering and production necessities were missing and mourning the loss of his mother, it’ll probably be his best read edition ever.

Sometimes it’s easy to point out the pitfalls along a story like this one and make an easy judgment. If someone had only done this, or someone would have done that, the whole thing could have been avoided. 

As it is, no one knows what’s what yet in Marion – only that a newspaper in the United States got torpedoed by government for reasons whose veracity is yet to be determined. The concern has been expressed nationwide, and well it should be.

–Dane Hicks, is publisher of The Anderson County Review in Garnett, Kan.