If you’re reading this right now, we have won. Every week, our newspapers struggles to cover local issues. We are limited by staffing, time and newsprint space, and we struggle to pay bills to keep our circulation going. We accept this burden. What we are not constrained by, however, is the government. The First Amendment has protected the free press from the beginning. Federal and state laws allow us to keep our sources confidential, and we keep local elected leaders and government agencies in check.
When community members approach us with news tips, we have the responsibility to verify the information. We then have the legal and ethical duty to maintain the confidentiality of sources. The police are prohibited by the Constitution, federal and state laws and various case laws from using search warrants to raid news organizations to find out what dirty details we have on someone or who provided it.
This should be a shorter column with a historical review. Sadly, the role of the small community newspaper was put to the test this month in an obscure Midwestern town. Police officers raided a newsroom in Marion, Kan. (population 1,920) and seized every computer and cell phone from the newspaper’s publisher and two staff members on duty. Police read reporters their rights and demanded answers to questions. What was the crime these journalists were accused of committing? Verifying information. Well, the police claimed it was identity theft, but these charges never saw light of day in a court of law.
The details have all the makings of a TV movie of the week. There’s the small-town police chief, Gideon Cody, who recently came to Marion after working 24 years with Kansas City Police Department in Missouri. Local businesswoman Kari Newell was seeking a liquor license for launching a new restaurant inside a historic hotel in Marion. Making the decisions were the city council members, who have a long history of in-fighting. Keeping all these characters in check for the public falls on the Marion County Record.
The Record, a weekly paper, has been in print since 1869. Eric Meyer, a retired metropolitan daily editor and journalism professor, took over the business from his parents, whose affiliation with the paper started in 1948. Eric has written several probing articles about local politics and local business owners. At age 98, his mother Joan (pronounced Joe-Ann) was still fully alert and insisted that no one could edit the copy on her weekly memories column.
The Record received a news tip that Newell had been driving on a suspended license since being convicted of drunk driving in 2008. This was newsworthy because Newell was waiting for the Marion city council to approve her new restaurant’s liquor license. Negative information about her past could have affected the local council members’ decisions. A source sent the Record and the vice-mayor a screenshot from a police database that revealed Newell’s negative driving record.
Cody’s background was also being probed by the Record, whose reporters wanted to know why he came to Marion for a chief job that paid nearly half of what he earned as a captain in Kansas City. The Record was stonewalled by the higher KCPD echelon who refused to release Cody’s personnel file.
Eric Meyer practiced responsible journalism by attempting to verify the news tips. Cody refused to confirm to Meyer why he left KCPD so abruptly. Meyer discussed Newell’s alcohol-related driver’s license suspension with Cody. Meyer then told Cody that the Record newspaper staff had verified Newell’s driving record on an internet database operated by the state. Cody said nothing about Newell but threatened to sue if the Record published anything about his tenure at KCPD. Meyer chose not to publish either story on Cody or Newell.
Within a few days, Cody and his police force (whose roster would barely form a baseball team) stormed the Record office with a search warrant that gave them the authority to search every byte of data storage. Cody’s cops and local deputies also raided the vice-mayor’s house, believing that she was a co-conspirator in spreading negative information about Newell. The final target of the police raid was the home that Eric shared with his mother. Joan hurled obscenities at the officers and local deputies and charged them with her metal walker as she demanded they leave her house. The cops ignored her as they seized computers and photographed personal papers.
The next day, Joan asked Eric, “Where are all the good people who are supposed to stop this?” A few moments later, Joan was gone. The coroner ruled her death a sudden coronary attack, possibly related to stress.
Good people did arrive for Joan and her family. The county attorney in Marion (whose brother owns the hotel where Newell’s restaurant operates) quashed the warrants. The Record still made it to press even without their computers, which were returned a week later. The Kansas City Star used their legal clout to obtain Cody’s personnel file, which revealed he retired early from KCPD to avoid being demoted to sergeant over sexual harassment complaints. Thousands of people nationwide have subscribed to the Record, tripling their subscription base. The Kansas governor sent the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to probe the police inquiries. The state has since announced that the database the Record used is open to the public and that no crime was committed. Good people, government and press alike, stood up to right this wrong. Lawsuits by the Record are pending.
In the end, Cody’s secrets were uncovered by the press. That’s what journalists do. We hold local leaders and decision makers responsible by asking questions and verifying the information we print. It’s what the Marion County Record has been doing since 1869 and what Joan Meyer spent her last breath defending.
Her photo should hang in every newsroom in America as a blessing to journalists and a warning to cops who should dare try such a raid again in our lifetimes.
James C. Pittman started his newspaper career in Minnesota, and has worked in law enforcement since 2002. He is a graduate of Bethel University, served in the U.S. Air Force, and currently works for a large municipal police agency.
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