I on the Media: Brant Houston discusses the police raid on 'Marion County Record'

Brant Houston

About the Media Expert

Professor Brant Houston is Knight Chair of Investigative and Enterprise Reporting in the Department of Journalism. He is the author of Changing Models for Journalism: Reinventing the Newsroom, co-author of the Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, among other books. In addition to teaching, Brant Houston oversees the online newsroom CU-CitizenAccess.org, devoted to community and watchdog reporting and data-driven stories by journalism students.

Houston served for more than a decade as the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and was an award-winning investigative reporter at daily newspapers for 17 years. He is co-founder of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the Investigative News Network and advises nonprofits newsrooms in the U.S. and internationally. 

What were your first thoughts when you learned about the August 11 police raid on the Marion County Record, run by your former colleague, retired University of Illinois associate professor of journalism Eric Meyer, as well as his home? 

My first thoughts were that this was an out-of-control, small-town justice system whose actions resembled those of autocratic governments in developing countries. Although those governments go on to burn down news offices and imprison reporters.

Did you talk about the Marion County Record and Eric Meyer with your advanced reporting classes on the first day of class, only 10 days after the raid? 

I did talk about it. To be candid, most of the students had not heard about it. The one student who had been in one of Eric Meyer’s classes was aware of it. I explained what had happened, the dangers it represented to a free press if replicated, and talked about the broad national support Eric Meyer and his weekly were getting.

What does it mean for local journalism and First Amendment rights that the national response to this case has been one of overwhelming support for Meyer and his newspaper? 

We live in a time when the national press is under constant criticism and attack, while at the same time officials and the general public have realized the local newsrooms, which generally are regarded as more credible and accessible, have been deeply diminished by a changing business model that has led to budget and staff cuts. The national response shows there is still strong belief in the First Amendment and a free and independent press.

Marion County police were ordered to return the seized equipment and phones because of insufficient evidence to support a raid. How can newsrooms prevent overstepping of their First Amendment rights?  

The only way to prevent such invasions of newsrooms and other overstepping of First Amendment rights is through the assertion of the value of those rights and immediate and robust responses to those violations. It is a constant struggle to preserve those rights, but absolutely necessary.

Is there a misperception of investigative journalism and its value?  

I think the value of solid credible investigative journalism is widely recognized and appreciated. While those under scrutiny may not like it, the public still counts on investigative journalists to be watchdogs for the community, to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse in government and to hold the powerful accountable for taking advantage of the powerless. For a community, investigative reporting is often the court of last resort, when bureaucracies or businesses fail to correct bad practices or protect the public.

"I on the Media" is a series from the University of Illinois College of Media in which faculty, staff, and students at the college address current issues and research.

—Holly Rushakoff