Raid doesn’t extinguish journalistic spirit

Another National Newspaper Week has rolled around, and with it the tradition of editors and publishers all across this great nation leaving dents in their keyboards as they furiously type columns and editorials espousing the benefits of newspapers and why they’re still relevant in a world where social media and blogs grab people’s attention with articles and segments that are incomplete, incorrect and occasionally incoherent.

I’ll let those other folks break out the saccharine and lay on the charm. I, on the other hand, wonder how much longer we can remain a free society when those who are tasked with enforcing the laws are so ignorant of said laws. I’m talking about the First Amendment, which provides freedom of, among other things, the press. I’m also talking about federal and state laws that protect the media from government intrusion.

For the most part, the media and law enforcement get along, and even if they’re not buddies downing some beers at the neighborhood bar, they’re still operating without resorting to gestapo tactics.

Then there’s Marion County, Kansas, a quiet area with a population well below those of either Shawano or Oconto counties where the police chief decided to take his beef with the local newspaper, the Marion County Record, to the next level by raiding the newspaper’s offices and the publisher’s home on Aug. 11, claiming that the newspaper impersonated a business owner or lied about the reasons why public records were needed on said business owner. The alleged crimes were the unlawful use of a computer and identity theft, with the identity charge being a felony.

Gideon Cody, the police chief, was actually being investigated by the Record after the newspaper was tipped off that he had left the police department in Kansas City under suspicious circumstances and was facing discipline and demotion. Nothing was published in the Record about the suspicions on Cody, but this was the guy who led the charge to confiscate the paper’s computers, servers, cellphones and other files.

Despite the seizing of the equipment, the Record found a way to get a paper out the next week, and the county attorney announced five days after the raid that the warrant was being withdrawn and the equipment was all being returned. However, by then, media outlets across the country had been alerted to the drama unfolding in sleepy little Marion, and they united to throw their support behind the Record.

Because it could easily have happened to them, too.

The Record is an impressive success story with 4,000 print and digital subscribers, which is quite the feat when you consider the county only has about 12,000 people. A Washington Post story noted that the Record received more than 4,300 new requests for subscriptions after the raid, which is clear evidence that the newspaper was doing its job.

The raid might have actually emboldened the Record to do its job even better, as the reporter who hesitated to publish the information on Cody’s previous law enforcement post decided to put it in the public eye and letting folks decide for themselves.

By law, police officers have to serve journalists with a subpoena when investigating a crime, and then it’s up to the reporter whether or not to turn over materials. State laws shield journalists from being compelled to identify their sources or turn over unpublished material to law enforcement. Instead of doing it the right way, Cody seized the equipment in a fashion that would probably prompt applause from Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.

The raid in small-town America is a clarion call to every one of us tasked with informing our communities about the activities that our elected officials. Much like the folks interviewed after school shootings who cry, “We never thought it could happen here!” this has made everyone with a notepad and camera aware that all it takes is one corrupt individual with a badge to pierce the supposedly bulletproof laws that keep us safe.

I’ve been fortunate to work with law enforcement that realizes we both have jobs to do and that my prodding into certain affairs when needed isn’t a threat to their jobs. However, it doesn’t mean that the next police chief or sheriff that rolls into town wouldn’t try to raid my office or home to find out how much information I had about questionable hijinks. It’s not stopping me from doing my job, though.

National Newspapers Week is Oct. 1-7. We provide the fun photos of festivals and the charming tales of folks who have achieved great things, but we also serve as the watchdogs of government officials, a necessary thing to keep American communities like ours from becoming places where freedom is abolished. That cannot change, because once that part of the First Amendment crumbles, the other pieces aren’t far behind.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for NEW Media. Readers can contact him at