Journalists work to re-establish trust, defend against governmental attacks

Marion Record publisher Eric Meyer, whose newspaper was raided illegally by Marion City Police and other law officers in August, addresses the audience at William Allen White Day at the University of Kansas Campus Thursday.(Photo KU media relations Instagram)

LAWRENCE – All told it was a pretty good week for journalism, as those who seek to speak truth to power made mea culpa revelations on the national scene and a Kansas newspaper received an award for surviving a political attack from its own local police and district court.

Eric Meyer of the Marion Record, the small town newspaper which was nearly shut down by its local police department last summer after an illegal search warrant, received the William Allen White National Citation Award from the University of Kansas School of Journalism at ceremonies on Thursday. Recognition of the newspaper’s plight came just days after distinguished National Public Radio editor Uri Berliner published a striking admission that the NPR news staff he administrated was vehemently biased against conservatives and candidate and president Donald Trump, and that the demonstration of that bias had cost the public radio organization not only its journalistic integrity but also broad swaths of American audience. It all swirls amid a national petri dish that shows a growing distrust of the media by the general public, and government and others bolstered in using that distrust to justify attacking journalists.

JoAnn Meyer chastises officers as they search her home last summer during the raid on the Marion Record newspapers and the homes of its publishers. The 98 year-old Mrs. Meyer died the following day. (Screen capture from federal lawsuit filing)

The plight of the Marion Record gained International attention after officers used a district court judges warrant to search not just the newspaper’s office but also of its publishers.Eric Meyer’s 98-year-old mother and co-publisher passed away the day following the extreme stress of the search of her home and confiscation of her personal computer and other equipment. Officers also confiscated cell phones from Eric Meyer as well as newspaper staff, all on a hunt for what they believed was evidence of identity theft in the newspapers’ work to find what turned out to be legal driver’s license revocatoin information Ffor a local restaurateur seeking a liquor license.

In a 137-page federal lawsuit seeking some $10 million in damages filed earlier this month, Meyer and the newspaper claim Marion Mayor David Mayfield and city police chief Gideon Cody used the opportunity they thought was provided by the alleged identity misrepresentation to vent long-term animosity over the newspaper’s coverage of city government. 

The suit maintains tension between the city of Marion and the Record sparked in April of 2023 when a city councilman refused a request from Meyer to comment on information that had been revealed about Chief of Police candidate Gideon Cody through several unnamed sources. According to the sources, Cody displayed “toxic/ego-centric” behaviors and unprofessionalism in his previous position at the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department, where he bullied officers, ran over a body at a crime scene, and joked about sexual assault, according to the suit. He was demoted from captain to sergeant before being hired by Mayor Mayfield.

Immediately upon taking office, the lawsuit alleges Cody began “cracking down” on the Record and the sources that had divulged his behaviors. He and several Marion residents including Mayfield expressed open disdain for “members of the media.” This culminated in July when local restaurant owner Kari Newell forced Meyer and reporter Phyllis Zorn from her establishment during a meet-and-greet with Congressman Jake LaTurner. Cody assisted in their removal from the property.

Soon after, on August 2, Zorn received a tip that Newell had a prior DUI conviction and was driving without a valid driver’s license. Local law enforcement knew she had been driving illegally but had not taken action against her. The tipster provided Zorn with Newell’s full name, address, driver’s license number, and date of birth which allowed Zorn to affirm her license status via the Kansas Department of Revenue website. This action is legal under Section 2721 of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

Meyer, alarmed by the tip, alerted law enforcement of the situation via email. Mayfield directed Cody to investigate the Record on the suspicion that Meyer and Zorn were trying to prevent Newell from getting a catering license that would allow her to serve alcohol at her restaurant. The suit says Cody then informed Newell that an unnamed reporter at the Record had “stolen her identity,” according to the suit. The police drafted affidavits containing false statements to establish probable cause for a search of the Record and its files, the lawsuit says.

Though tensions between journalists and those in particular positions of power are commonplace, rarely do they rise to the level of the events in Marion. Personal motives were at the core of a feud that threatened to put a local Wisconsin media outlet out of business last year. Cory Tomczyk, who is now a state senator, sued the Wausau Pilot & Review for defamation after his use of an offensive slur was published in the digital paper in August of 2021. After the suit was dismissed in April of 2023 Tomczyk appealed, also in August, and is seeking financial remediation.

In its report of the incident, the New York Times noted the ease that Tomcyzyk and other powerful figures have in “banning reporters from covering events, attacking them on social media, [and] accusing them of being an ‘enemy of the people.’” These trends were apparent in Marion. Wausau Pilot & Review founder and editor Shereen Siewert told the Times that since 2021, her publication had already incurred nearly $150,000 in legal fees and will likely incur more.

In accepting the KU award on Thursday, Eric Meyer told students and others in the audience instead of being intimidated by such attacks as seen in Marion, the incidents should be motivation for journalists to be even more energetic disruptors of such castes of power. 

“We talk about the swamp in Washington, but there is a swamp everywhere in government,” Meyer said. “And it is led by people who say government can do whatever it wants, unless somebody sues.”

Ursula Billings

Ursula Billings is a freelance writer for The Kansas Informer. She will graduate in May with a degree in Ag Business from Fort Hays State University and begin courses as a first-year law student at University of Kansas School of Law in August 2024.

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