Democracy needs a free press to survive
The freedom to report on the government and its leaders without censorship is a fundamental principle of a functioning democracy. When governments and those in power have the ability to censor the media and suppress the voice of the people, despotism takes root and chokes out the democratic rule of law.
The First Amendment guarantees the right of a free press in order to hold government accountable through investigating and reporting on the actions (and inactions) of government officials and organizations. The press is so important in this role that it has often been referred to as the fourth branch of government, a necessary check on the powers of those we elect and those who are appointed to uphold the law.
And because both the constitution and the law recognize the importance of the press, journalists and media organizations are protected from revealing sources and sharing details of ongoing investigations except in the most extreme cases, or when there is probable cause that a journalist has committed a crime.
On August 11, 2023, in Marion, Kansas, city and county law enforcement officers raided the Marion County Record offices, confiscating computers, cell phones, notes, essentially everything needed to publish the paper. In addition to the raid on the newspaper offices, the homes of the Marion Vice Mayor and the home of publisher Eric Meyer, who lived with his 98-year-old mother, Joan Meyer, was also searched and similar items were seized. Joan Meyer died the next day and Eric Meyer believes the stress of the raid contributed to her death.
The warrant for the search and seizure was issued following a complaint by a local restaurant owner who was upset about the paper’s reporting. Additionally, the paper had been investigating information they had received legally from a source about the restaurant owner’s driving record, but the paper had chosen not to publish that information. Following the raid, it was also learned that the paper had been actively investigating the Marion Chief of Police over allegations of sexual misconduct at his previous job, but that investigation was still in progress and there was not yet a plan to publish anything related to that investigation.
Following the seizure of their equipment, with help from others and an all-nighter, the Record was able to publish their weekly issue on time. You can read their lead story about the incident “SEIZED: But Not Silenced” at marionrecord.com.
The Marion County Record is a relatively small weekly paper with a circulation of about 4000. With a reputation for hard-nosed reporting and unflinching editorials about local officials, it appears that a local business owner, county sheriff, and a willing magistrate overstepped their legal authority to attack a newspaper they didn’t like.
Vilifying the press is nothing new. For the last four decades, right-wing personalities and politicians have sowed a deep mistrust of the so-called mainstream media in consumers of conservative media. Many of my friends and family refuse to believe anything in traditional media. Long gone are the days when the vast majority of Americans trusted the voices of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.
Sowing distrust in the media with claims of fake news and liberal bias is one thing (which, as much as I think it undermines our democracy, is largely protected speech under the First Amendment). But using an agency of the government to raid a media company reporting on something you don’t like is unconstitutional.
Local newspapers in the United States continue to close at a rate of about two each week. And with that, local communities lose the kind of reporting Eric Meyer and the Marion County Record do to hold their local businesses, school boards, county officials, and city council members accountable.
I hear complaints about our local paper, The Tri-City Herald, all the time. People either repeat the same misguided talking points you hear about national media or complain that they can’t access a paywall restricted article online without paying for it. But without the Herald, who would be reporting on our local issues? We’ve certainly had plenty to write about recently, and I’m thankful that I can read about issues as they happen and have an opportunity to follow up on my own. I don’t have the time or ability to go to every board and council meeting, but local journalists can cover at least some of the issues.
Local reporters dig into the facts and report them so that we, the members of the community, can stay informed. I don’t want our local council members, school board members, and the sheriff’s office deciding to raid the offices or homes of writers for The Tri-City Herald, Tumbleweird, or the Tri-Cities Observer if they feel threatened by the media.
We should all be alarmed at what happened in Marion, Kansas. And we should all be deeply concerned over the loss of local journalism across the country.
Maris Kabas interviewed Eric Meyer shortly after the raid in her Substack column The Handbasket. Mr. Meyer, the publisher of the Marion County Record, takes no salary from the paper (he lives on his pension from his career at the University of Illinois and the Milwaukee Journal). He believes journalism is fundamental to a working democracy. In the interview, he expressed concern about how attacks on the local press by government officials affect everyone in the community. Mr. Meyer said:
I talked to one person [in Marion] who said, “Oh, are you sure It's ok that I can talk to you because they might come and seize my computer?” They're afraid. They're really afraid that the police power is unchecked, and that they can be punished like this. And I think that's why I think it's important for us to fight this as much as we can, because it is destroying everything we're trying to do with democracy. … It’s a way to dispirit people from becoming involved in government by making them think that if you do, there's gonna be consequences and they're going to be negative.
A week after the raid, the warrant was withdrawn, and the paper’s equipment was returned. The Record has hired a digital forensic company to determine whether any of their sensitive records were accessed after the equipment was seized. But the Marion County Record will continue to do the work for the people of Marion County.
Support local journalism, support the media companies that can do deep investigative reporting at a regional and national level, and continue to support a free press. Without it, democracy will die.