by Melinda Henneberger
Joan Meyer, 98-year-old enemy of the people, died in the line of duty on Saturday.
A newswoman since 1953 and co-owner of the local paper in her hometown in central Kansas, she lived to see her Marion County Record, as well as her home, raided by police on Friday, for reasons that defied both law and logic.
It is not hyperbole to say that this attack on the people’s right to know appears to have killed her.
On Friday, police showed up looking for evidence that a reporter had run an improper computer search to confirm an accurate report that a local business owner applying for a liquor license had lost her driver’s license over a DUI.
According to coverage of this story on the Record’s website, the reporter “made no attempt to conceal her identity, providing her name.” What’s more, the Record had decided not to run the story, because editors questioned the motives of their tipster.
The business owner’s complaint did have this result: People across the country who would otherwise have lived and died never having heard of Kari Newell now know that she lost her license after a drunk driving conviction and kept driving anyway.
The police who followed up on the complaint by storming the Meyers’ home and office took computers, phones and some of Mrs. Meyer’s completely unrelated stuff, including the router that connected her Alexa speakers.
“These are Hitler tactics and something has to be done,” Mrs. Meyer told our Wichita Eagle colleague Dion Lefler after her belongings were confiscated, an employee injured and her paper left unsure it would be able to publish its print edition.
The “Hitler” comment “turned out to be one of the last things she ever said,” Lefler wrote. “Mrs. Meyer complained of feeling upset and stressed by the invasion of her home when she spoke to us on Friday.”
Then, according to her newspaper, co-owned by her son Eric Meyer, with whom she shared a home, she was so traumatized that she couldn’t eat or sleep.
“Stressed beyond her limits and overwhelmed by hours of shock and grief after an illegal police raid on her home and the Marion County Record newspaper office Friday,” the story in her paper said, “98-year-old newspaper owner Joan Meyer, otherwise in good health for her age, collapsed Saturday afternoon and died at her home.”
At 98, Mrs. Meyer had lived through World War II, and so knew better than most of us what ‘Hitler tactics’ are. She did not say Gideon Cody, the former KCPD captain who ran the raid, and whose time in Kansas City the paper was investigating, is a Hitler. But what she did say, which is that these are tactics made familiar to us by some of the darkest moments of history, is unfortunately true.
When I wrote the other day about the Trumpian threat to our way of life, I got mail urging me to relax, because hey, “looney liberals” need to be purged from our government.
Only, I’m not relaxed, because attacks on a free press are a hallmark of fascism.
I’ve written over and over about why we should never trivialize the Holocaust by behaving as though “Nazi” is just another word for someone with whom we disagree.
But it also offends the memory of the millions of victims of fascism to fail to name the real and growing threats to our democracy.
And this attack on a newspaper in Marion, Kan., population 1,922, was a classic of the genre.
As was the war on the McCurtain Gazette, in McCurtain County, Okla., after it dared to take on the wrongdoing of the local sheriff’s department. One headline: “County Officials Discuss Killing, Burying Gazette Reporters.” Officials also lamented that lynchings are no longer A-OK.
“We’ve investigated county officials a lot,” the Gazette’s owner, Bruce Willingham, told The New Yorker for its recent piece on what happened there. “The Gazette exposed a county treasurer who allowed elected officials to avoid penalties for paying their property taxes late, and a utilities company that gouged poor customers while lavishing its executives with gifts,” the story said. “To most people, it’s Mickey Mouse stuff,” Willingham told the magazine. “But the problem is, if you let them get away with it, it gets worse and worse and worse.”
Not sometimes, but every time.
That’s why the death of so many newspapers is not at all unrelated to the golden age of corruption in which we live. According to a 2022 report by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, more than 25% of all American papers have closed since 2005, and two-thirds of U.S. counties no longer have a daily paper.
I grew up in a place not that much bigger than Marion, and know that doing journalism well where everyone knows their neighbors is even harder — try that in a small town — under enormous personal pressure to stick to stories that upset no one but don’t help anybody, either. So I know exactly what we’ve lost in losing all those weeklies.
And I mourn Mrs. Meyer, whose last public statement was something hard to hear but important because true.
In her honor, I subscribed to her newspaper on Saturday, which set me back $34.99 for a year. Wherever you live, please think about doing that, too, even if the print edition is skinnier than it used to be. Because if you let them get away with it, it gets worse and worse and worse.