Discover more from That Guy in Hutch
Pressing for freedom
Raid on Marion County newspaper presents opportunity to live campaign slogans
Unless you live under or a rock - or intentionally evade all the news that’s fit to print - you’ve likely heard that the quaint little town of Marion has been thrust into the national spotlight, thanks to a quarrel between local law enforcement and the local newspaper publisher.
I’m not going to expand on the details. The reporting on this has been robust. If there’s one thing I learned in my time in journalism it’s that other journalists love writing about other journalists who have been treated badly.
Just like all those law-and-order folks love to rally around other law-and-order folks, and how the legions of First Amendment defenders relish the chance to rally around the right of free expression on any and all platforms.
Until they don’t.
Every single year, there’s a chorus of people who can’t seem to say enough how much they love freedom - and how much they hate the government and all it’s oppression. And, of course, there are candidates for public office who, given any chance to let words fly from their mouths, will scream that they love freedom more than all the other people who love freedom - and that they’re the only ones who can be trusted to defend and protect freedom against any assault, real or imagined.
And few politicians have threatened to defend freedom harder than the state’s top law enforcement officer - Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach. He’s such a staunch defender of freedom, he built a campaign around using the court system to protect Kansans and their freedoms.
“I’ll wake up every morning having my breakfast thinking about what our next lawsuit against Joe Biden is going to be,” Kobach said in an pre-election day interview.
Phrases like that are filled with so much love for freedom, it’s about enough to bring tears to your eyes just thinking about it. And there was a literal busload of candidates traipsing around the state in sort of love-of-freedom promenade, right before the last few elections.
But when actual, real-world, on-the-ground violations of the U.S. Constitution take place - the fervor and vitriol from this camp seems to fade. Now, those once fervent defenders of liberty - including our Attorney General - want us all to take a breath, relax, remain calm, and wait for the facts to unfold.
You know, like the reasonable, fact-based, wait-and-see sort of people we’ve all seen the past several years.
But there’s a tricky thing about love, and freedom, and the putting together of the two.
If that love of freedom is true and real, you don’t really get to defend it, protect it, and scream to the world how much you love it only when it looks, talks, and behaves like you think it should. Constitutional rights aren’t for when it’s easy to enjoy them, or for when they validate our own point of view. Rights are spelled out precisely because they need protecting when it is hard, and when it’s easier to ignore them.
In 1922, Kansas’ most notable journalist spelled this out in letter “To an Anxious Friend.” In part he wrote….
“This state today is in more danger from suppression than from violence, because, in the end, suppression leads to violence. Violence, indeed, is the child of suppression. Whoever pleads for justice helps to keep the peace; and whoever tramples on the plea for justice temperately made in the name of peace only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man which God put there when we got our manhood. When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line.
So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold - by voice, by posted card, by letter, or by press. Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.”
Most often, the public’s attention is centered on the big, bad national media. And there’s blame a plenty to go around there. I think one of the most damaging developments in American life over the past 30 years or so has been the growth of 24-hour cable news. The always-on news requires feeding - and that has led to an exponential growth in the punditry business. We don’t need to hear - nor should we ever care - to know what so many people have to say about so many different things.
But local journalism has been caught in the fray, and that is where true danger lies. And I’ve never seen that danger more tangibly expressed than the ill-advised raid on a tiny local newspaper in Marion, Kansas.
For all the gnashing of teeth around national media, local journalism has always been the equalizer in any community. It tells the story of life, of what it means to be part of a physical place. And, it alone holds public institutions accountable. Because they are there day after day, serving the community that the editors and publishers call home. Without strong local journalism, many places begin to slowly degrade as people feel less connected, and the people tasked with running local government can do as they please with impunity.
Marion is what happens when a group of people feel an inherent right to do as they please - and when they feel that there’s not anyone around to call them out. The national publications all have their eyes on Marion now that there’s trouble - but before the trouble started they’d have never found Marion on a map. Local journalism keeps local officials honest. And we’re watching that play out in real time.
When I was a reporter and editor at The Hutchinson News, I received countless tips, documents, and information that - based on the aggressive interpretation we seem to be getting from Marion law enforcement - that would’ve been considered illegal.
And like what we’ve seen in Marion, the vast majority of information I received never made it to press. Some did - when it was necessary to right wrongs or expose serious flaws in local systems and when that information could be vetted and verified. But most of it was rejected after being researched and considered by thoughtful journalists who cared about their community and carried in their hearts the duty of responsible journalism.
While we’re on this topic, however, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a glaring flaw in our judicial system.
There were times when I’d be in the middle of an interview in a courtroom or in the nearby offices when a police officer walked in with a search warrant for judicial review. And more than once, I watched the warrant get signed without even a glance, let alone a thorough review. Like many people who work in related, but separate fields, there begins to be a lot of trust and comfort. That’s natural when people work closely together. But in systems designed to include appropriate distance and scrutiny, that closeness can, and does, become complacency - and result in system failure. We’re seeing this in Marion, too, where it’s now clear there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support issuance of a very broadly worded search and seizure warrant.
I always say that voting in local elections is far more meaningful and important than the votes cast for President. Likewise, I’d argue that the information that comes from a local source of journalism - provided there’s a functional form of it in a community - has far more meaning than the pundits and spin doctors we so often see on some cable news show or aggrieved online personality.
The Freedom of the Press is such a foundational piece of a functioning democracy, it takes top place in the Bill of Rights, alongside speech, religion, assembly, and petition.
There’s no question that freedom is something worth loving, and protecting.
But freedom isn’t something that gets to be controlled or defined by any one group of people. Freedom is an ongoing community effort.
And we don’t get to love it less or diminish its value when someone we don’t care for, or who does something we don’t like, experiences a clear violation of their freedom.
If we love freedom when it serves us, but not when it doesn’t, it’s not freedom we love after all.
That Guy in Hutch is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.