A pro-Trump protester holds a placard that says Fake News Is The Real Virus during a protest in Huntington Beach, Calif., on May 9, 2020.
Photo: Stanton Sharpe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
An ugly strain of anti-press hatred is stalking the nation.
The latest victim of this poisonous, anti-democratic virus is a small-town newspaper in Kansas.
On Friday, local police, acting like the Gestapo, raided the office of the Marion County Record, as well as the home of its owner and publisher. They used a trumped-up search warrant approved by a compliant local judge to seize newsgathering equipment, including the computers and cellphones of reporters. The raid was so traumatic that the publisher’s 98-year-old mother, who was the newspaper’s co-owner, died on Saturday as a result.
The police were trying to suppress the truth that the newspaper had uncovered about a local restaurant owner who hosted an event for the region’s far-right member of Congress, Rep. Jake LaTurner.
The Marion County Record was doing basic accountability reporting, the lifeblood of small-town journalism.
It has always taken courage to run independent newspapers in small towns and mid-sized cities in America. For generations, politicians and business leaders have fought back against aggressive coverage by local newspapers and have frequently made life difficult for publishers and reporters. Almost every reporter who has ever worked for a small newspaper has experienced resistance from the local power structure. I experienced a bit of it myself during my first job in journalism.
As a young reporter in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the late 1970s, I wrote a story revealing that local banks were not making mortgage loans in the Black community. In response, the biggest bank in town took out full-page ads in the newspaper for two days straight attacking my story. Thankfully, the paper’s top editor backed me up; the day the bank’s first ad ran, he walked past my desk in the newsroom and said simply, “Thanks for the extra ad revenue.”
But things have gotten much worse over the past few years. Hatred of the press has deepened on the extreme right, stoked by Donald Trump and his paranoid acolytes. Trump labeled the press the “enemy of the people,” a fascist slogan that has now seeped into common usage on the right. Physical attacks on journalists in the United States are becoming more common and are now a signature of right-wing extremism; reporters who covered the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were assaulted and had their equipment damaged.
Eric Meyer, the owner and publisher of the Marion County Record, was stunned by Friday’s raid, which involved the town’s entire five-member police force and two sheriff’s deputies. He told the Kansas Reflector that the message from police and the local political establishment was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
It is probably not surprising that the local establishment that is attacking the Marion County Record is at the same time supporting an extreme right-winger like LaTurner, who has not commented on the raid on his Twitter account. Meyer told the Associated Press that “this is the type of stuff that, you know, that Vladimir Putin does, that Third World dictators do.”
(The Intercept and other news organizations signed a letter from Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press condemning the raid.)
The unjustified assault on the Marion County Record is another reminder that press freedom is one of the most important democratic traditions under threat from Trumpism.