Fixing a Leak

What happens when a reporter doesn't keep his word to an anonymous source?

Dan Cohen is worried about Spicy Secret. The two-year-old thoroughbred has been suffering from "bucked shins,"a common ailment in young racehorses. This crisp May morning is Cohen's first opportunity to see his horse work out this year. After watching Spicy Secret circle the muddy track at Canterbury Park, the 69-year-old author, Republican activist, and onetime Minneapolis City Council president tries to remain optimistic.

"I thought she galloped very nice," he tells the horse's trainer, Troy Bethke. "She's more compact than I realized." Bethke is reassuring about Spicy Secret's progress, but he also reveals that x-rays are going to be taken of the horse's shins to make sure there isn't a more significant injury.

Having won an ugly race against the media, Dan Cohen has traded in the political horse race...for horse racing.
Diana Watters
Having won an ugly race against the media, Dan Cohen has traded in the political horse race...for horse racing.

This information leaves Cohen somewhat flummoxed. "You heard the little message that was slipped in there?" he asks. "We may not be running until she's a three-year-old. It was said but it wasn't said. That is very disconcerting to hear."

Cohen has been involved in the horseracing business for more than a decade now. He's dressed for the part this morning, a tan baseball cap emblazoned with the words "Bethke's Kelly-Rae Racing Stable" covering his milky hair. A similarly inscribed green pullover, battered black corduroys, and black cowboy boots complete his outfit. Cohen switched from merely betting the ponies to raising thoroughbreds and quarterhorses after continually coming up short at the races.

"It appeals to me because it's got the same kind of edge as politics has," Cohen says. "Like every other degenerate gambler, you come back from losing, you tear up your ticket, and you say 'I want an edge.'"

Cohen has spent much of his life--whether in horseracing or politics--trying to gain an edge. This ethos, and his involvement with some other spicy secrets, has led to trouble. Most famously, in 1982 Cohen was outed by the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press as the source of a leak highlighting then-lieutenant governor candidate Marlene Johnson's conviction for shoplifting. Cohen released the documentation to reporters on the condition that his identity not be revealed, but the newspapers ultimately ignored that agreement.

Cohen responded by suing the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press in Hennepin County District Court. After a decade-long legal battle that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court and made headlines across the country, he prevailed, collecting $331,000 in damages.

Anonymous Source: At War Against the Media, released last month by Oliver Press, is Cohen's long-incubating chronicle of the famous case. He is the author of 20 previous books, including a biography of Hubert H. Humphrey and numerous mysteries aimed at preteens, but Anonymous Source is clearly his most personal work.

The result is a deftly written narrative that casts Cohen as both hero and villain. While he takes numerous potshots at the Star Tribune and other perceived enemies, he also details his own shortcomings with self-deprecating humor. Of particular note are the opening chapters of the book, where Cohen lays out a sharp insider's take on the often unseemly interactions between politicians and journalists. Mark Felt and Bob Woodward have recently been lionized for bringing honor to their professions and changing the course of the country. Cohen's story, by contrast, involves no one acting honorably and nothing good coming of it.

The flip side of Cohen's very personal history is that the book also suffers from Cohen's sometimes myopic obsession with the finer details of the case. He chronicles the jury trial at agonizing length, quoting verbatim from the transcript. At times he can come off like a jilted lover, replaying for the umpteenth time the indignities he's suffered.

There's no denying, however, that Cohen has undergone a profound public transformation over the decades. After ascending to the presidency of the Minneapolis City Council at the age of 31 and jostling with Arne Carlson to be the Republican it-boy of his generation, he has now written the ultimate outsider account of Minnesota media and politics.

 

Cohen's narrative begins with a somewhat unlikely anecdote, tacking back to the summer of 1967. With the civil rights movement reaching high boil, then-Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin had selected 15 candidates to serve on a newly created human relations commission. Among the contenders was a fledgling black civil rights activist named Ron Edwards.

At the time Cohen was serving his second term on the City Council. A cop slipped Cohen a copy of Edwards's criminal record, which consisted solely of misdemeanor offenses. Cohen then passed the document on to a reporter for the Star Tribune, with the caveat that the source of the document not be revealed.

Despite this supposed promise of anonymity, the subsequent story identified Cohen as the dirt peddler. He was widely tarred as a backwater bigot. Edwards's nomination to the human relations commission went through anyway. But the dustup dealt a critical blow to Cohen's rising political profile. "The next thing everybody knew, by 1969 Dan Cohen's political career was in shambles," recalls Edwards, who went on to become an executive with Northern States Power and remains one of the busiest civil rights activists in the city.

Cohen now concedes that it was foolish to surreptitiously attack Edwards for petty misdeeds. He writes candidly in Anonymous Source about his willful ignorance of the systemic discrimination faced by African Americans. "I had no particular animosity towards blacks, but I had no particular empathy for them either," Cohen acknowledges. "Before I got into politics, I never knew a black person by name. Every school I had ever attended, every neighborhood I had ever lived in, every outfit I had ever worked for, every social event I had ever attended was de facto segregated."

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