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.

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."

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.

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."

Surprisingly, Edwards and Cohen subsequently struck up a rapport, occasionally meeting for tea or dinner. "Our relationship was one of mutual respect and there was nothing personal in the great battle of 1967 and 1968," says Edwards. He believes that Cohen was unfairly demonized for political purposes. "I've been in this town since 1945. I had a pretty good feel for the falseness of the so-called liberals here."

Cohen, however, failed to learn from this experience. By 1982 his political career had long been derailed, but he remained a player in Republican circles. That year Wheelock Whitney was running for governor against DFLer Rudy Perpich. Cohen was occasionally billing hours to the Whitney campaign as a consultant.

In the final days of the race, with polls predicting a double-digit Perpich victory, the Whitney folks resorted to desperation tactics. The campaign had discovered that Perpich's running mate, Marlene Johnson, had two criminal charges on her record, for unlawful assembly and shoplifting. The initial run-in with the cops related to a civil rights demonstration and was therefore of little use. But the shoplifting charge--even though it involved just $6 worth of purloined sewing materials from a Sears store--was more enticing. At a campaign meeting just six days before the election, Cohen agreed to distribute the candidate's criminal record to the media.

He peddled the documents to various Capitol reporters: Lori Sturdevant of the Star Tribune, Bill Salisbury of the Pioneer Press, Gerry Nelson of the Associated Press, and Dave Nimmer of WCCO. In each instance, Cohen extracted a promise of anonymity from the reporters before sharing the potentially damaging documents.

These vows turned out to be meaningless. Both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press ran stories in the next day's paper highlighting Johnson's criminal record--and citing Cohen as the source of the information. Both Salisbury and Sturdevant fought this decision (with the latter refusing to have her byline attached to the story), but the reporters were overruled by their editors. Neither paper acknowledged in their articles that Cohen had been promised anonymity. (The Associated Press honored its deal with Cohen, while WCCO ignored the matter completely.)

The consequences for Cohen were immediate and severe. He was fired from his job at the public relations firm of Martin/Williams. An editorial cartoon in the Star Tribune portrayed him, quite literally, as garbage. And the disclosure of Johnson's shoplifting conviction certainly didn't damage the Perpich campaign: He trounced Whitney by some 300,000 votes.

Cohen might have let the incident die and gone about picking up the pieces of his career if not for a final kick from the Star Tribune. In the weeks after the election Cohen had managed to land some freelance work writing recruitment brochures for the University of Minnesota football program. Then-sports columnist Doug Grow got wind of this arrangement and wrote a piece criticizing the U of M's administrators for putting Cohen on the payroll.

This was the final indignity for Cohen. He decided to sue. "I call that a late hit," he says now. "His ferreting out this needless information that I was doing some work for the university was mean-spirited and unnecessary."

Grow says that he was surprised upon reading Anonymous Source that his column played such a catalytic role. "I'm shocked that this particular column was the thing that pushed him over the edge, but that's his perception of the world," Grow says. "It's one of those great learning exercises for me. Everything you write has impact in different ways."

The trial was an epic battle. Cohen and his equally iconoclastic attorney, Elliot Rothenberg, reveled in their roles as legal underdogs. Rothenberg had never previously argued a jury trial. He was learning on the fly, aping the legal maneuvers of the high-profile attorneys hired by the newspapers.

"Elliot started out the trial fumbling around," recalls Paul Hannah, who represented the Pioneer Press. "Which of course immediately scared the bejesus out of me. It's a wonderful way to endear yourself to a jury."

Hannah notes, however, that Cohen and Rothenberg quickly became adept at working the courtroom. "I think he and Elliot together brought a lot of brain power to the case," he says. "We had a very complicated argument and theirs was very simple. It rang true."

The jury awarded Cohen $200,000 in damages for breach of contract and an additional $250,000 in punitive damages from each of the newspapers for fraud and misrepresentation. The defendants appealed the verdict, however, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the damages for fraud and misrepresentation. Both parties then appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. The state's top judicial body dealt another blow to Cohen, reversing the damages for breach of contract as well.

But in 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. By a 5 to 4 margin, the court sided with Cohen. In 1992, a full decade after the initial fingering of Cohen as the anonymous source in the Johnson matter, he received a total of $331,000--$200,000 in damages, plus interest.

The lasting legal significance of the case is questionable. Mark Anfinson, a lawyer who specializes in first amendment law and provides legal counsel to many media companies (including City Pages), downplays the ultimate import of the case because of its unusual circumstances. "It's extraordinarily rare for journalistic organizations and news organizations to reveal confidential sources," he says. "It's so rare in the profession that the Cohen-type circumstances almost never arise.... It's kind of like Mt. Kilimanjaro. It stands in sort of splendid isolation, more as a geographic feature of the law then something that really influences it much."

But whatever its legal ramifications, the case has had a lasting impact on newsrooms. No newspaper today would so cavalierly dismiss a promise of anonymity granted to a source. "We won't do that again," says Grow. "We did not act with honor as an institution. There's not a reporter here who agreed with that decision."

 

Cohen initially began work on Anonymous Source more than five years ago, but temporarily abandoned the project because he couldn't capture the appropriate tenor. "I thought it was too angry and I was too kind to myself," he says over lunch at Sapor Café and Bar, a restaurant in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis that he regularly patronizes. "I had to realize that I was not doing battle for the Lord here, that this was a mess of my own making in large part. Sometimes I get caught up in my own rhetoric."

Still, Cohen remains a caustic political observer and dedicated Republican. He believes that George W. Bush will ultimately deserve a place on Mt. Rushmore for spreading democracy in the Middle East, and proudly brandishes a photo of himself with Richard Nixon, taken when Cohen worked for the Peace Corps at the end of the '60s. He's also contemptuous of Minneapolis's DFL establishment. "I know the difference between McLaughlin and Rybak," he says of the current mayoral contenders. "One wears socks that match, one doesn't."

The political chicanery that brought Cohen such strident denunciation in the early '80s would probably not be necessary nowadays. There's little doubt that the media would need little assistance today to ferret out a lieutenant governor candidate's shoplifting conviction.

But Cohen is convincingly repentant about his efforts to smear Johnson. He closes the book by offering her an apology. "In a way it's kind of a Catholic book," Cohen says. "It's sin, guilt, and redemption."

Twin Cities Reader Summer Books Issue:

The Barnstormer A few years ago, Doug Ohman was a theme-park executive with 600 employees. Today, he photographs barns. What happened?

The Dirty Parts Romance Novelist Connie Brockway Wants to Know Why People Can't Look Past the Unbound Bosom and Love-Swollen Member

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

From the Beauty Parlor to the Barricades! Her Warmhearted Characters Feel Good About the World. Lorna Landvik Doesn't.

Love and Marriage To Most of Us, Nothing Sounds Worse Than a Loveless Marriage. According to Stephanie Coontz, It Wasn't Always That Way.

Life of Johnson It wasn't fun bringing up the rump of the avant-garde. B.S. Johnson felt compelled to do it anyway.

Review: Joe Coomer: Pocketful of Names

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