Kansas Reflector Editor-in-Chief Sherman Smith on Freedom of the Press
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Kansas Reflector editor-in-chief Sherman Smith joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about the police raid on the tiny Marion County Record. He explains the newspaper’s investigation of the DUI history of a local restaurant owner who’d applied for a liquor license, which led to an August 11 raid of both the newspaper’s office and publishers’ home. The local magistrate, with her own DUI history, signed the warrant that alleged possible identity theft by one of the reporters. Sherman explains what the police took, why it was ultimately returned, and why he’s encouraged by the national and international response that sends the message that this treatment of journalists will not be tolerated. He also reads from the Reflector’s initial reporting.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: You were talking a little bit about all of the materials that [police took in the raid], and the lede of the Kansas Reflector story that ran the next day is pretty striking. I wonder if you would read from that for us.
Sherman Smith: Yeah, we published this online just hours after the raid. I had help in writing the story from several staff members: Tim Carpenter, Sam Bailey, Rachel Mipro. And the headline was “Police stage ‘chilling’ raid on Marion County newspaper, seizing computers, records and cell phones.”
In an unprecedented raid Friday, local law enforcement seized computers, cellphones and reporting materials from the Marion County Record office, the newspaper’s reporters, and the publisher’s home.
Eric Meyer, owner and publisher of the newspaper, said police were motivated by a confidential source who leaked sensitive documents to the newspaper, and the message was clear: “Mind your own business or we’re going to step on you.”
The city’s entire five-officer police force and two sheriff’s deputies took “everything we have,” Meyer said, and it wasn’t clear how the newspaper staff would take the weekly publication to press Tuesday night.
The raid followed news stories about a restaurant owner who kicked reporters out of a meeting last week with U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, and revelations about the restaurant owner’s lack of a driver’s license and conviction for drunken driving.
Meyer said he had never heard of police raiding a newspaper office during his 20 years at the Milwaukee Journal or 26 years teaching journalism at the University of Illinois. “It’s going to have a chilling effect on us even tackling issues,” Meyer said, as well as “a chilling effect on people giving us information.”
VVG: Thank you so much. That story really captures the scene. Clearly one of the effects of this raid, right, is that the newspaper is on the edge of not being able to publish, and I know from your coverage and from reading other stories as well, that of course the newspaper ended up managing to publish. The staff pulled an all-nighter and its front page headline read, “SEIZED … but not silenced.” And they actually cobbled together a computer. I’m imagining the TV drama episode adapted from this. They went and found a disk drive… It sounds like it was pretty MacGyver over there in the newsroom.
SS: A little bit, yeah.
Whitney Terrell: What do you think I do before we record every time this show?
VVG: I know that just outside the frame of what we see on YouTube, there’s all sorts of…
WT: There’s all sorts of naked motherboards here that I just touch wires to.
VVG: This podcast is held together by paper clips.
SS: Well, in this case, the raid was on a Friday. They’re a weekly paper, so they put the paper together Tuesday night and send it to press, and deliver it Wednesday morning. And so they had a few days in between there to try to figure out what to do.
There was an outpouring of support from people all over the state, all over the country, some even internationally. They went into this stressful period where they’re trying to fulfill a lot of interview requests. The publisher, Eric Meyer, is appearing on CNN and all these other major national outlets trying to help people understand the severity of what happened in his newsroom. And meanwhile, they’re like rummaging around the back shop for discarded old computers that they might be able to put together and actually have a machine that they can use.
They found an old Windows XP machine, if you remember the days of XP, and were able to bring it back to life and get some programs on it that allowed them to actually put the paper out that Tuesday night. The people from the Press Association, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and some others were kind of like forming a barricade at one point Tuesday afternoon at the front of the office so that the staff could just have some peace and quiet in the back and actually put this paper together, and they were there all night trying to make it work.
As you mentioned, they had to go find a standalone disk drive that they could plug into it. They backup all of their data. Their files are backed up on DVDs that they burned like we used to do years ago… But they were a month and a half behind on burning these discs so they had to go find discs from mid-June and figure out how to plug them into an old machine that didn’t even have a functioning disk drive just to be able to pull this together. So I think they finished the paper around 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, sent it out to the press, and it arrives somewhere around 11 o’clock, 10 o’clock, something like that, late Wednesday morning. And they got the paper out.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf.
Kansas Reflector • “Police stage ‘chilling’ raid on Marion County newspaper, seizing computers, records and cellphones,” by Sherman Smith, Sam Bailey, Rachel Mipro, and Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector • “Sheriff’s office agrees to destroy evidence obtained from raid on Kansas newspaper,” Kansas Reflector
Marion County Record • MacGyver • Carl Hiaasen • “Judge who approved raid on Kansas newspaper has history of DUI arrests,” by Chance Swaim, Wichita Eagle • Hunter Biden • Kris Kobach • American Press Institute • Rachel Maddow • States Newsroom