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Local Police Raided a Kansas Newspaper. I've Got Questions.
We don't yet have all the facts on the police raid of the Marion County Record, but AP coverage is leaving a lot to be desired.
Update: 8/16/23, 12:34 p.m. CT
KSHB Kansas City reports that the search warrant that cleared the way for the raid has been withdrawn.
Hello, readers. Parker here.
Since everyone else on the planet is talking about the Trump indictments, I want to use today’s newsletter to talk a little bit about the police raid of the Marion County Record, a small newspaper in Marion, Kansas.
Here’s a super quick tl;dr if you haven’t heard about this story:
Last Friday, the Marion Police Department raided the offices of the Marion County Record and the home of editor and publisher Eric Meyer. The police seized computers and cell phones in response to a complaint from Kari Newell, a local restaurant owner, who accused the paper of, as the Associated Press writes, “invading her privacy and illegally accessing information about her and her driving record and suggested that the newspaper targeted her after she threw Meyer and a reporter out of her restaurant during a political event.”
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Meyer denied any wrongdoing with regard to Newell’s claims, and said he believed the raid was at least partially motivated by the paper’s coverage of local politics and an ongoing investigation into Marion Police Chief Gideon Cody’s past. There are two really good stories that I want to highlight, both by:
There’s something I noticed about some of the mainstream coverage of the raid that feels worth mentioning.
I was reading Monday’s Associated Press article, “Kansas police and a small newspaper are at the center of a 1st Amendment fight after a newsroom raid,” and it seemed pretty standard… until it didn’t.
It starts off with a basic rundown of what happened, what was taken from the paper’s offices, the fact that press freedom watchdog groups criticized the raid, etc. Cool, okay. Standard stuff. But then I got to the fourth paragraph:
But some Marion residents hold a different view, accusing the newspaper of aggressive news coverage that has driven out businesses and painted a negative picture of the town of about 1,900 people.
That’s… weird. Whether or not the newspaper has “aggressive news coverage that has driven out businesses and painted a negative picture of the town” has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the raid was justified. It just… doesn’t. It’s a completely different topic.
But then, nine paragraphs later, this:
Jared Smith, a lifelong Marion resident, said Monday that he supports the police raid. Smith accused the newspaper of ruining his wife’s day spa business opened only a year ago by digging into her past and discovering she had appeared nude in a magazine years before. That fact was repeated in the Record more than 20 times over a six-month period, Smith said.
“The newspaper is supposed to be something that, yes, reports the news. But it’s also a community newspaper,” he said. “It’s not, ‘How can I slam this community and drive people away?’”
I don’t understand the reason behind Smith’s inclusion in this article. Even if Smith’s characterization of the paper as hellbent on “ruining his wife’s day spa business” or “slam[ming] this community and driv[ing] people away," that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not the police were legally justified in their actions.
Smith also popped up in coverage of the raid from the Kansas City Star:
Others in the town of fewer than 2,000 people have different opinions about the paper and its self-described aggressive coverage. About a block away on Monday, lifelong resident Jared Smith, 39, applauded the police raid as he closed down his wife’s spa on Main Street — a decision he tied to the Record’s “negative” coverage of her business.
“It blows my mind how negative our paper is to our community,” Smith said as he stood in front of the shuttered Dawn’s Day Spa, where a homemade “Support Marion PD” sign was displayed on the window.
Once again, people have every right to like or dislike their local newspaper. They can argue (incorrectly, in my opinion) that the job of a small-town newspaper should be to make the town look good. They can think the editor is a jerk, and they can take issue with how he runs the company. The right to disagree with the paper and to argue that the paper should make changes is at the heart of media criticism, so I obviously understand.
But what I don’t understand is why newspapers like the Kansas City Star and wire services like the AP are injecting this into stories about whether or not the police were right to raid the paper’s offices. To insert it is to give the impression that disliking a paper means that the legal protections afforded by the First Amendment are only valid so long as people like the work you do.
A response to a reader.
I decided to write about this after getting a response from a reader (hello!) over on Bluesky, about my defense of the newspaper and whether that’s incompatible with my post from Monday about the way Tiffany Gomas was treated by the New York Post.
I think it’s important to recognize that Smith may (see the footnotes, as I tried to dive into this a bit more) have very legitimate grievances with the paper, just as Gomas likely has very legitimate grievances with the news outlets that capitalized on her viral moment. That said, those grievances don’t have anything to do with whether police raids on newspapers would be appropriate or not. If the police raided the offices of the New York Post, I’d find it just as inappropriate to use articles about it to rattle off lists of editorial disagreements I (or someone else) have with them (and there are many!).
You can say that you think something was poorly written, obsessive, or even unethical without citing that as justification for using the power of the state to silence that newspaper. You can lead boycotts, you can loudly and publicly criticize the paper, etc. That’s all perfectly fine; it just doesn’t say anything about the legality of a raid.
That’s one of the things that’s been so frustrating about this story: we don’t have all the facts just yet. It’s entirely possible that the raid on the Record was justified. It’s also possible that it wasn’t. But none of that has to do with whether or not Smith(or others in Marion) believe the paper is good for the town.
Anyway, that’s it for me today. Thanks, as always for reading. And if you haven’t yet, please consider subscribing to the newsletter to keep up with my latest posts.
When I conducted a search for stories about Smith’s wife, Chelsea Mackey, in the Record, it only returned seven results. The first story was an August 4, 2022, piece about Mackey’s spa opening; the second was an August 31, 2022, story about the spa’s sign violating a local ordinance. On October 12, 2022, the Record posted a story about Mackey’s battle with local officials about her sign; on November 30, 2022, the Record published a piece about potential changes to the sign rules that would allow Mackey to keep it.
It was on December 26, 2022, that the paper published a story mentioning the photos in question. The article, “Marion fires city administrator on split vote,” focused on city administrator Mark Skiles’s firing.
The focus of this story, the firing of Skiles, was absolutely newsworthy, and the mention of Skiles showing Mackey’s photo to city councilmembers is a legitimate thing to bring up. It makes Skiles look bad. The only change I would have personally made to this story, if I were editing it, would be to remove the final sentence, as it doesn’t actually matter if it was “one of the tamer items from a risqué website…” or not.
Three days later, the paper published another version of the same story. Again, this referenced Mackey’s photos in the context of Skiles’s firing, but with the final sentence of the section changed to read, “It is unclear whether the photo was one of the tamer items from a risqué ‘Blair Daniels’ website that includes more revealing photos, including nudity.” Finally, on January 12, 2023, the paper published a story titled, “Mayor, council member exchange barbs over secrecy,” that once again used the “…website that includes more revealing photos, including nudity” line that I’ve already said was probably unnecessary.
It’s certainly possible that there were more articles about Mackey’s photos, but they’re not readily available online.
And again, the issue here isn’t with Smith. He can support the raid on the paper if he wants to, even if his reasons are personal.