September 2, 2023
By Clay Wirestone
After Kansas Reflector reported on the ignominious and unconstitutional raid of the Marion County Record on Aug. 11, news outlets and commentators from across Kansas and the nation followed suit throughout the weekend. The voices of those who value a free press and free expression were overwhelming in their force and intensity.
Eight days later, with the Record’s equipment returned and reporters digging into circumstances surrounding the raid, it can be tempting to think that justice has been done. Time to pack up, nothing more to see here. Freedom has won, and we can all sail into the sunset.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We still need answers and consequences in the case itself. More broadly, the egregious overreach in Marion and the good faith of journalists at the Record made this a perfect national story. Few would think that authorities got this one right. The problem — as journalists across the States Newsroom network told us — is that attacks on a free and fair press are not rare at all. Indeed, such attacks have become distressingly commonplace.
When powerful people go after journalists and news outlets, they go after everyone. They go after publications’ readers. They go after voters who use information reported to make decisions. They go after other politicians who may have opposing messages or interests.
Ultimately, they go against the constitutional order of this country, which guarantees First Amendment rights to everyone.
Or as national president of the Society of Professional Journalists Claire Regan said: “By all accounts, the raid was an egregious attack on freedom of the press, the First Amendment and all the liberties we hold dear as journalists in this great country.”
Make no mistake: Popular speech seldom requires government protection. Officials in Russia don’t worry about cute cat calendars or a lifestyle magazine promoting Vladimir Putin as the sexiest man alive. Speech that many would consider offensive or outrageous or simply impolite would be easy to shut down without the protections inscribed in our founding documents.
Aggressive journalism and pointed commentary doesn’t always feel good. It’s not supposed to. Those who would shut it down might claim they’re trying to restore civic peace or look out for the common welfare. Ultimately, however, they are harming the Constitution and country they claim to love.
Let’s look at outrages big and small from across the United States. Editors from other States Newsroom outlets sent their own accounts, columns they ran and links to other stories. Follow along, in easy alphabetical order.
Arizona – Arizona Mirror editor Jim Small highlights two stories, the first from him, the second from the Associated Press:
From 2016: “House Republican leaders defended their decision this week to revoke the credentials of the dedicated Capitol reporters by saying the new policy requiring background checks of the Fourth Estate, which allow them to access the press tables they’ve sat at on the House floor since at least the 1970s, is merely about ensuring the safety of the chamber’s 60 elected officials.”
From May 2023: “A judge dismissed Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers’ restraining order against a reporter Wednesday, saying that the investigative journalist’s conduct did not rise to the level of harassment.
“ ’I don’t think there is a series of events directed at Sen. Rogers that would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed or harassed even if she in fact was,’ Judge Howard Grodman said after a hearing in Flagstaff Justice Court. ‘The strongest point is investigative reporting is a legitimate purpose. lt just is.’ ”
Arkansas – Arkansas Advocate editor Sonny Albarado wrote a column on the subject last week:
In Arkansas, the state Department of Education’s sudden decision to remove an Advanced Placement course from its approved list for graduation credit sent a not-so-subtle and insidious message to educators and students alike regarding freedom of thought and speech.
The AP African American Studies course had been under ADE scrutiny since Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders ordered the agency to scour curricula and other educational material for evidence of “indoctrination” and “critical race theory.” Her signature legislation the LEARNS Act contains a section describing what is meant and what isn’t meant by the vague terms. Read it and see if you don’t think it’s still vague.
Georgia – Georgia Record editor John McCosh highlights the jailing of a reporter seven years ago:
From July 2016: “Mark Thomason was arrested, handcuffed, put in the back of a police cruiser, booked, had his mugshot taken, was strip searched, made to pee in a cup in front of male witnesses, made to shower with other inmates and spent 24 hours in a jail cell.
“According to the rural north Georgia journalist, he simply made open records requests that made people in powerful positions angry.”
From November 2016: “All charges were dropped against Mark Thomason and his attorney, Russell Stookey, who was jailed on that fateful day. Thomason’s open record requests were granted.”
Iowa – Iowa Capital Dispatch editor Kathie Obradovich writes:
In Iowa, a reporter from the Des Moines Register was pepper-sprayed and arrested by Des Moines police during a May 2020 protest of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Although Andrea Sahouri identified herself as a reporter who was covering the protest, she was put on trial for failure to disperse and interference with official acts. A jury acquitted her in 2021.
Other attacks on press freedom have come in the form of violations of the open records act and new restrictions in media access to state and local government. The Republican-controlled Iowa Senate permanently removed media from press seating on the chamber floor in 2022 after more than a century. A group of journalists and open-records advocates, including Iowa Capital Dispatch, sued Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and members of her staff for violations of the open-records law, including failing to respond to requests for public records for as long as 18 months. The suit was settled earlier this year after the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed that the governor’s office was subject to the law and that its response time was unreasonable.
Missouri – Missouri Independent editor Jason Hancock writes:
In Missouri, few elected officials have had a more combative relationship with the press than Gov. Mike Parson. He regularly lashes out with baseless attacks on the media, and during his tenure in office he cut the number of statehouse parking spaces designated for reporters and revoked Capitol building passes for the press.
But all that pales in comparison to his push to prosecute a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who uncovered a security flaw in a state website.
Top officials in Parson’s administration initially wanted to thank the reporter. But instead, Parson convened a news conference to call the reporter a hacker, accuse the Post-Dispatch of trying to embarrass a Republican governor and to push for the reporter to face a criminal investigation.
Even after prosecutors and local law enforcement concluded no crime was committed, Parson refused to accept reality and continued to insist the reporter engaged in wrongdoing.
New Mexico – Source New Mexico editor Shaun Griswold writes:
The attack on press freedom in New Mexico is a personal affair that brought me unwanted attention and affirmed that journalists in the state will stand up to elected officials, or in this case wannabe elected officials.
I took a drive five hours south from my home on Aug 14, 2022, to Carlsbad, New Mexico. The assignment was to cover New Mexico GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti and his guest Ron DeSantis. This was before the Florida governor announced his candidacy for president, but we all knew what he was going to do. However, I was there for the weatherman turned statewide candidate Ronchetti. At this point he had yet to speak in many public forums, and my goal was to inform readers on his thoughts next to a national GOP elected.
It turned into something completely different.
Before I arrived, I had been denied a credential by Ronchetti’s press secretary Enrique Knell, who cited Source New Mexico as a “left-wing” publication.
I opted to sign up for a ticket through the campaign and walk in to see the event, something I learned to do from other restrictive practices under former President Donald Trump.
When I arrived, two paid security guards had my face on their cellphones. With backup from armed sheriff’s deputies, they denied me entry to the event.
I was so upset, I was starting to bum cigarettes and chain smoke. By the third American Spirit I got from someone in a 3 Percenters T-shirt, I noticed a piece of blank white cardboard. I grabbed it, took out my Sharpie and wrote a note soliciting interviews from anyone that was inside.
I still hit the assignment and learned early on what the rest of the country is still learning: Trump reigns supreme with these voters, even the people DeSantis brought in.
After I left, social media fueled a bigger conversation on press access. The campaigns had thought it was proper to push around a new, smaller news publication. They thought wrong. The attention to press access was brought up by every media outlet in New Mexico and several out of state.
I’ve repeatedly thanked Ronchetti, and by proxy DeSantis, because they showed me the strength of journalists when we work together.
Oregon – Oregon Capital Chronicle editor Lynne Terry writes:
One of the most high-profile incidents in Oregon happened in September 2020, during a police raid on a large homeless camp in a public park in Medford in southern Oregon.
April Ehrlich, a reporter for Jefferson Public Radio, arrived before police to interview some of the dozens camped there. When police arrived, they closed the park and set up a media staging area a ways away.
Ehrlich refused to leave and continued reporting.
Four police officers surrounded her and handcuffed her arms behind her back as she shouted, “I’m a reporter! I am a reporter! I’m just doing my job.”
She was hauled to jail, charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and interfering with an officer. She sat behind bars for hours before being released.
Journalists rallied to her defense, with about 50 news outlets joining a friend-of-the-court brief, including The New York Times, Washington Post and the Associated Press.
Last September, days before the case was due to go to trial, a judge dismissed it, calling her arrest a violation of her constitutional rights. Days later, she filed suit in U.S. District Court in Medford against the city of Medford and its city manager, Jackson County and several police officers.
The case is ongoing.
Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Capital Star editor Kim Lyons writes:
Perhaps the most egregious attempts to stifle the press in Pennsylvania recently have come from candidates for public office. Doug Mastriano, the GOP candidate for Pennsylvania governor in 2022, did not engage at all with most reporters (unless they were from “friendly” right-wing outlets), had aides physically prevent reporters from entering his campaign events (at one event by a gentleman in a tri-cornered hat, no less) and had reporters photos’ printed out at a check-in desk at another event, to bar them from entry.
Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro by 14 points in the general election.
South Dakota – South Dakota Searchlight editor Seth Tupper writes:
When I was working at the Daily Republic in Mitchell, a local surgeon told our editor he was lucky the paper hadn’t been “firebombed” after we questioned the surgeon regarding his repeated use of racial slurs. The situation resulted in temporary police protection for the paper, while the surgeon eventually stepped down from the hospital board (whatever other consequences he faced, if any, were hidden behind the wall of “personnel matters”).
When I was working at the Rapid City Journal, members of a local water development board (a publicly elected body that levies a small tax) tried to use $100,000 of the board’s public funds to sue the newspaper because they were angry about our coverage. Other board members shot down the proposal. Board members pushing the plan said some things to and about me and the paper that were borderline threats, including, “When you’ve got a bully on the beach, sometimes you’ve got to go pop them on the nose before you get things squared away, and that’s kind of how I look at the Rapid City Journal situation,” and, “Your judgment day is ahead.”
West Virginia – West Virginia Watch editor Leann Ray writes:
West Virginia journalists are no strangers to assaults on the free press – and the worst part is that most of it is coming from inside their own organizations. West Virginia Watch was formed because of this.
In December 2022, three reporters from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, including our Caity Coyne, were fired for tweets criticizing HD Media President Doug Skaff – who was also the West Virginia House of Delegates minority leader at the time – for interviewing former coal mine operator Don Blankenship on his online political podcast and not pushing back on Blankenship’s denial of climate change or that he had any responsibility in the 2011 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
But that’s not all. That same month, it was discovered that Skaff had an IT employee delete a 2015 Gazette-Mail story about Skaff being banned from casino gambling in West Virginia after he was caught cheating during a Blackjack game at the Greenbrier resort. When editors found out, the story was put back on the website with an editor’s note.
Also in December, Amelia Ferrell Knisely was abruptly let go from her position at West Virginia Public Broadcasting for reporting on the Department of Health and Human Resources. Knisely reported stories about allegations concerning people with disabilities being abused in state-run facilities. Her termination followed the DHHR demanding that one of her stories be retracted. She now works for West Virginia Watch.
And we can’t forget the time that Gov. Jim Justice said he wished Gazette-Mail Statehouse Reporter Phil Kabler was hijacked on a train, and threatened to sue Kabler and the paper.
These are just instances we know because we lived them. The Charleston Gazette-Mail is West Virginia’s largest newspaper, and people still think of it as the “liberal media,” so it might have received more negative attention than other news outlets.
Wisconsin – Wisconsin Examiner editor Ruth Conniff highlights this column from Bill Lueders:
Now there is a case in Wisconsin that is drawing national attention as an example of the use of brute force by government officials against a local news outlet. In an article that appeared in Wednesday’s paper, New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters looks into the lawsuit brought by Cory Tomczyk, now a Republican state senator from Mosinee, against the Wausau Review & Pilot, a digital newspaper started and edited by Shereen Siewert.
In an email exchange, Siewert said she believed the purpose of Tomczyk’s lawsuit is “to bankrupt me and crush our organization.” She recalled her sense of relief when the lawsuit was dismissed. “But then the realization hit that even if we win, we lose, because there is no way for us to counter sue or recoup our losses in any way … because we live in Wisconsin.”
Clay Wirestone is the opinion editor of the Kansas Reflector. He has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.