About News

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The Marion County Record in Marion, Kansas, was raided by police on Aug. 11, 2023.

The many powerful people who don’t like the news media have all sorts of ways to make life harder for them. Publicly attack credibility. Pass laws restricting information. Take away public notices. File a lawsuit. And the occasional physical assault.

There’s also the option to steal their equipment and kill their mothers.

The journalism community across the country is rightly up in arms about Friday’s raid on the newsroom of the family-owned Marion County Record in Marion, Kansas (population 1,900). Acting with a search warrant approved by a judge, local law enforcement seized computers, cellphones and other reporting materials. One reporter had her cellphone taken from her hand.

Authorities also raided the home of the editor and his 98-year-old mother, the newspaper’s co-owner. “These are Hitler tactics,” she said. Her son said the raid “stressed her beyond her limits” and left her unable to eat or sleep. The next day, she collapsed and died.

According to the warrant, the searches and seizures stemmed from an investigation into whether the newspaper committed a crime – identity theft and illegal use of a computer – to obtain (but not publish) records showing an old criminal conviction of a local citizen. The editor denies this, saying a confidential source provided the records unsolicited.

Journalists can’t commit crimes to gather news. But it’s well established that they can’t be punished if they innocently receive information that was illegally obtained by someone else.

Maybe, this is a sincere investigation by Marion police. Or more likely, as the editor believes, this is harassment motivated by the newspaper’s current investigation into the reasons the police chief left his previous job.

Don’t ever be surprised when there’s a political angle to these things.

Even more alarmingly, the editor says the confiscated equipment holds the names of confidential sources the Record talked to in its reporting about the chief.

Not surprisingly, on Wednesday afternoon the Marion County prosecutor said the warrant application had insufficient evidence to justify the searches and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said seized items would be returned to the newspaper.

When the government decides to get heavy handed with news organizations, it’s often by using subpoenas to try to obtain reporters’ cellphone and email records from a third party as part of a leak investigation (see here, here and here for examples). That’s not great, but at least news organizations can challenge subpoenas or negotiate what information might be turned over to the government.

That ain’t what happened in Marion. The raids were a remarkable abuse of power and almost certainly illegal under federal law. Thirty five news outlets and press freedom organizations sent Marion’s police chief a letter correctly noting that “newsroom searches and seizures are among the most intrusive actions law enforcement can take with respect to the free press, and the most potentially suppressive of free speech by the press and the public.”

Obviously, they are physical interferences with journalists’ ability to do their jobs. Powerful people trying to avoid accountability also like the companion effect of intimidating journalists’ potential future sources.

Last week’s episode took place in Kansas USA, but actions like those come from the script of authoritarian governments.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.