Now, This Is a Small Town
Grudges, political infighting, accusations, gossip, rumors galore! Now, this is a small town.
The small town of Marion, Kansas has erupted into an oversized attack on the freedom of the press. A police raid on the town’s weekly newspaper, The Record, has sent shock waves throughout the nation.
Last month, a police raid in the small town of Marion, Kansas went viral. Small town news became international news. The combatants in the ring were the police chief, the newspaper editor, and a local businesswoman.
Gossip had spread that the new police chief in Marion had left the police department in Kansas City under suspicion. The local newspaper reporter naturally followed up on the story to ask the Chief Gideon Cody tough questions. She worked for the weekly rag, the Marion County Record.
People chose sides because the newspaper already had a reputation for aggressive reporting. That, of course, was a badge of honor, for the journalists in Marion or anywhere else in the world. One statement sounded like a universal declaration about small towns in general. The police chief told the Washington Post, “If you live in Marion, you understand. If you don’t live in Marion, you don’t understand.” That seems both true and false. Small towns tend to be small towns. If the weekly newspaper prints a negative story, it’s not like gossip that rolls away. It’s in print for all to read and remember. It feels more personal, more dangerous.
Small town caricatures run the gamut from little bits of heaven to a cauldron of resentments, meanness, suspicion, and hatefulness. Small town as heaven or hell probably depends on the small town in your own life. Whether the memories are romantic or not, the tensions and resentments of a few community members will keep the pot boiling. Sometimes the complex history grows from being about two men to entwining two families across multiple generations.
Almost everyone knows everyone else in a small town. Prior to the Civil Rights movement this did not include knowing anyone who lived on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Knowing your neighbors, many of them your kin, meant talking about one another in ways that were endearing and endemic to cruelty.
Gossip spreads from house to house like a wildfire. Within twenty-four hours twenty-four hundred people know what went on behind closed doors, who was running around on whom, and who had slipped across the dry parish line to purchase bourbon. On Sunday morning, sitting alongside the object of the gossip, singing “Blessed Be the Ties that Bind,” no one felt the slightest shame or discomfort. Talking about each other passed for entertainment in the days before television.
Small town competition led to bitter rivalries. The invisible lines between the store owners and the regular working people were drawn but not enforced rigidly. Boys faced the same rivals in all the sports year after year. Some could play baseball, others not so much. Bragging, taunting, fighting – daily life realities.
There was a barber shop, a drugstore, a bank, a clothing store, a car dealer, a dry goods store, and scattered other establishments. On a side street the open door of a pool hall looked invited to country boys strictly commanded by stricter fathers never to enter the doors that led to sure perdition.
Secrets were hard to keep in small towns. Sometimes fights broke out in full view of the public. No guns were fired. No fists were slung in anger. The fights were more subtle than that, but still vicious. Small towns can be tough as nails.
The gossip about the chief would have died down eventually since the reporter never published the story. But the experience of the chief from the big city left him chafing, chomping at the bits for a fight. Cody obtained search warrants and raided the Record’s offices and the home of its editor and publisher – seizing computers, servers, cellphones and other files.
The chief felt vindicated in this rare move, with all of its First Amendment implications, because of the long-time rifts between local newspaper reporters and community members. The pot boiled over with the raid. Viral fails to do justice to the implications of this raid. Shaking the foundations of democracy, threatening the sanctity of freedom of the press, and alarming First Amendment watch dogs everywhere, the story about unwarranted government intrusion enraged conservative and liberals.
The media descended on Marion in such numbers that the scene of alien spaceships flying out of the mother ship in Independence Day seemed an appropriate visual trope. A caravan of TV news
trucks wound through Marion. You would have thought that the president of the United States had dropped in to announce a new corporation locating in Marion. The local bar, the one with the most variety of beers on tap, became the office of reporters from everywhere.
As if a script for a Hallmark movie was playing out, on the day after the raid the editor’s 98-year-old mother died. She had created a movie-worthy scene by railing at the officers searching her home. “Get out of my house!” Joan Meyer had shouted at Cody from behind her walker before calling him an expletive, home surveillance video revealed. “Don’t you touch any of that stuff!” The editor blamed his mother’s death on the stress created by the raid.
Reporters fanned out from local drinking establishments to interview anyone willing to make a statement. Some of the good citizens of Marion extolled the virtues of living in a small town as if oblivious to the controversy. “A lot of us have chosen to live in a small town because that’s what we want,” said Zach Collett, 34, a Marion City Council member and manager at a security company. “We want to be able to go to the grocery store and see people that we know there. And driving down the street and knowing dang near everybody you pass by.”
The newspaper was part of the Meyer family tradition. The newspaper should have been a source of community pride because, in an age where newspapers are on the endangered species list, The Record had 4,000 readers in a county of 12,000 people.
The reputation of aggressive reporting had always haunted the newspaper, but people kept reading what the newspaper printed. Now, that politics has poisoned the civic life of the nation, every media outlet is exposed to complaints that they are only spouting propaganda from one side of the great partisan divide or the other. Truth has lost its footing in a culture that believes everyone has a “perspective.” Everyone is deemed as spinning the truth. The Record was caught up in the swirling winds of a national crisis facing all of democracy.
Community leaders in Marion used social media to respond to less-than-flattering news. The town’s mayor, David Mayfield uses Facebook to attack the newspaper. He accused the editor of telling an “outright lie.” The editor often responded to the criticisms in personal editorials. Some people found this mean-spirited. Again, truth was not the subject. Emotions, perception, and image ruled the day.
A local restaurant owner developed a grudge against the newspaper. Kari Newell insisted that the stories in the newspaper were irrelevant. The story about the owner of a Marion day spa was factual and true, but that was lost in the emotional upheaval. The editor defended the paper’s coverage: “We don’t want to make everything negative about the city of Marion,” he said. “It would be nice if the city of Marion did something positive for once. We would love to write about the city doing something nice.”
The back and forth between town leaders and the newspaper continued, so the police chief raided the newspaper and seized computers and other records. The crimes delineated in the warrant: unlawful use of a computer and identity theft.
The government intrusion on a newspaper felt like a political earthquake. No one could remember seeing this in America before. It seemed that the demands of the extreme left and extreme right of the country had exploded in Marion.
The raid posed an existential threat to the fraying fabric of democracy. The government is supposed to protect citizens from the power of the government itself. With the decline in people’s trust of our anchor institutions, especially the press, it becomes easier to ignore our system of checks and balances. Citizens should not face abuse from the government.
What now plays out in Marion, Kansas is the quintessential nature of small towns: residual resentments. Small towns did not invent the politics of resentment, but they have perfected them. All that “close” communion with the same people over all those decades sets the table for simmering resentment.
The politics of resentment, however, are not redemptive. Redemption by resentment is a puerile discourse of redemption by the raw use of power and influence. It prompts people everywhere to express uninhibited feelings of anger, fear, and hatred. According to Jeremy Engels, in The Politics of Resentment, this rhetoric fails because it calls on Americans to blame their civic equals for their pain.
Now, even small towns are threatened by the politics of the uninhibited who are willing to trample on the truth to maintain image, reputation, and place. This is not a productive time for democracy.
After the raid, the Record received more than 4,300 new requests for subscriptions, many from far-flung boosters eager to show their support, its editor said. Volunteers showed up at the office to help answer phone calls.
The first post-raid issue of the paper had a banner headline: “SEIZED … but not silenced.”
Amen! And God bless the First Amendment.