What the Star Tribune did to Dan Cohen


Review of “Anonymous Source: At War against the Media” by Dan Cohen. Published by the Oliver Press, Minneapolis.

Dan Cohen was once president of the Minneapolis City Council. He was also a candidate for Mayor who narrowly lost to Minneapolis Police Federation head, Charles Stenvig, in the 1969 city elections. His greatest claim to political fame may lie, however, in an event which brought great personal shame and misfortune. His plucky reaction to abuse by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in Cohen v. Cowles Media brought about a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court which has resulted in more than 300 legal citations in subsequent court cases.

Dan Cohen was and is a Republican. In 1982, he worked for a Minneapolis advertising firm, Martin/Williams, which had a contract with the gubernatorial campaign of Wheelock Whitney. Whitney, former head of a local stock-brokerage firm, was the Republican candidate that year against Rudi Perpich, the DFL candidate and winner of the general election. He worked primarily in the area of television commercials.

Unluckily for Cohen, he was called to a meeting of top Whitney campaign managers to discuss the fact that Perpich’s Lieutenant Governor running mate, Marlene Johnson, had an arrest record. Twelve years earlier she had been arrested and convicted of shoplifting at the Sears store near the State Capitol in St. Paul. The first hint of this incident occurred during a radio talk show debate. A Republican operative went down to the St. Paul court house and pulled the record of Johnson’s trial. Yet, no major media had picked up on this fact.

At the meeting, Cohen naively voluntarily agreed to shop the story to the media.
Armed with the court record, Cohen scheduled four media visits: to Lori Sturdevant of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bill Salisbury of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Gerry Nelson of the Associated Press, and Dave Nimmer of WCCO-TV. In all cases, he offered the story to these reporters on condition that he not be revealed as the source. (Hence the title of the book, Anonymous Source). All four reporters agreed to the terms of his disclosure.

Lori Sturdevant of the Star Tribune accepted the materials with a promise of confidentiality although she was troubled that the Star Tribune did not have exclusive rights to the story. “Come by any time you have material like this,” she told Cohen. Likewise, Bill Salisbury of the Pioneer Press accepted Cohen’s story with the remark, “This is political dynamite.” So also with the other two reporters. They both took Cohen’s information agreeing not to identify him as the source. Nimmer remarked, however: “This stuff has been kicking around for several days.”

The reporters did their job. Among other things, they contacted Marlene Johnson for comments. The first female to be nominated for Lieutenant Governor in either major party, she assumed the role of victim. She told reporters that she was distraught by her father’s death a month earlier. She had “forgotten” to pay for the items taken from the Sears store - a sewing kit costing the paltry sum of $6.00. This was a difficult time in her life when she was “under stress - I had lost about 20 pounds - and I got my first speeding ticket at about the same time.” She was then a mere 24 years of age.

It worked like a charm. Back in the office of the ad agency, Cohen and other Republican operatives began getting ominous phone calls. Knowing that Cohen was working for the Whitney campaign, the reporters were working the angle that the Republican candidate for Governor was trying to smear Johnson. The Pioneer Press reporter, Salisbury, said that his editor, David Hall, had decided to renege on the promise of confidentiality. He wanted Cohen to release him from the promise. Cohen refused.

Then Dan Cohen received a call from Lori Sturdevant of the Star Tribune. Since the St. Paul newspaper had decided to reveal Cohen as the source, her newspaper would do the same, she said. Cohen protested that she had given her word not to name him in her article. “That’s why I won’t have my name on the article,” she blithely told Cohen. The Star Tribune bylined the article “Staff Reporter”. That’s how the newspaper solved this particular ethical problem.

Both the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press turned the story of Marlene Johnson’s arrest for shoplifting into a story about a dirty-tricks stunt by the Whitney campaign. This was in the heyday of feminist politics. On the day when the story about the Republican scum peddler’s outing of Marlene Johnson appeared, the Pioneer Press ran a Perpich/ Johnson campaign ad with a large photo of Johnson and a long supporter list headlined: “When a woman does something that women have never done before, it changes us.”

Cohen gave the St. Paul paper credit at least for running the story about Johnson in the D section and not mentioning his name until the 13th paragraph. In contrast, the Star Tribune ran it on the front page of the A section and mentioned his name in the first paragraph. The headline read: “Marlene Johnson’s arrests disclosed by Whitney ally. Star Tribune editors Mike Finney and Frank Wright were the ones who decided to renege on Sturdevant’s promise to Cohen. Nowhere in either article was the promise mentioned.

It should be noted that the two other media outlets, the Associated Press and WCCO-TV, did keep their promise to Dan Cohen. The first ran the story without mentioning Cohen. The second did not run the story.

In the aftermath of the sensationalized disclosures, Wheelock Whitney and his campaign manager stated that Cohen had acted without their knowledge or consent. Cohen was promptly fired from his job at Martin/ Williams, being suddenly too hot to handle. So intense was the attack on Cohen, it became hard to find another job.

Columnist Jim Klobuchar (father of the current Hennepin County Attorney) blasted Cohen for telling Sturdevant that the Perpich/ Johnson campaign was “living a lie” in failing to disclose Johnson’s shoplighting record. Cohen was being sanctimonious to think that such a petty indiscretion should be disclosed. The editorial page next ran a cartoon of Rudi Perpich staring at a garbage can on which the words “last minute campaign smears” were written; Perpich is saying “It’s Dan Cohen”.

Then, the Variety Section weighed in with this comment: “Every state has its stinkballs (or do I mean gunkheads) and there have been instances of whispering campaigns, name-calling, and nasty, 11th hour leaking in Minnesota this year that I would definitely put in this category ... I think it’s wonderful that there’s a place where mudslinging backfires.”

Radioactive, Cohen had to lean on his network of friends to find work. An ad agency found work for him designing recruiting brochures for the University of Minnesota football team. Meanwhile, another Republican operative, Gary Flackne, published a letter to the editor of the Star Tribune questioning why that newspaper had reneged on its promise of confidentiality. Lou Gelfand, the “Reader’s Representative” (whatever that means), responded with the statement that “publishing Cohen’s name without his permission is justified by an unspoken standard of journalism that defines the substance of Cohen’s tip as beneath the threshold of acceptable, unattributable information”, whatever that means.

Also, a Star Tribune columnist, Doug Grow, had learned through an anonymous source that Dan Cohen was now designing promotional literature for the University of Minnesota football team. His post-election column was titled “’U’ reticent about Cohen’s role in writing recruiting brochures.” U of M athletic officials were having to defend themselves against any association with this pariah. Cohen had “had it.” Here was Grow, hounding Cohen’s employers for associating with a man who had been an anonymous source, when he himself was relying on an anonymous source. Cohen decided to sue the Star Tribune.

The rest is history. While most of Anonymous Source is about Cohen’s nine-year struggle to seek justice through the courts, I will spare you of the details. Of interest, perhaps, is that the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s executive editor, Deborah Howell, was a close personal friend of Marlene Johnson’s, that Lori Sturdevant was from South Dakota and had worked on “several small-town newpapers” while Cohen was a graduate of Harvard Law School, that Jim Klobuchar (like Perpich, an Iron Ranger) had helped to write Perpich’s inaugural speech, and that Doug Grow refused at the trial to identify his “anonymous source” who had tipped him off about Cohen’s working at the University of Minnesota. Double standards and political stereotypes abound.

Refusing a $4,000 offer of settlement from the newspaper, Dan Cohen beat the socks off the Star Tribune at the trial in Hennepin County district court against a battery of high-priced lawyers working for the newspaper. The jury awarded Cohen $200,000 for breach of contract, and $250,000 apiece from each of two defendants in punitive damages.

The newspaper appealed. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court decision by a 2-to-1 decision, while reducing the amount of the award. Then the Star Tribune appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which, ironically, was headed by a close friend (and fellow Iron Ranger) of Rudi Perpich’s, Peter Popovich, who promised to ask no questions during the hearing. This court reversed the decisions of the lower courts.

This time, Cohen appealed - to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the appeal. On June 25, 1991, this court ruled by a 5-to-4 margin that the First Amendment did not allow the Star Tribune to breach its contracts. That decision prompted the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse its earlier decision in favor of the defendants.

The Star Tribune was an ungracious loser. Its lead counsel stated: “We are pleased that four of the nine justices recognized that, in making the difficult decision to overrule a promise of confidentiality made to a source, we served vital public interests by providing important information to the electorate on the eve of an election.”

This spokesman did not mention that a year earlier it had also served “vital public interests” in running front-page articles shortly before the general election about how the Republican candidate for Governor, Jon Grunseth, had once swum in the nude with teenager girls at a July 4th party, forcing him to resign the race. The Star Tribune again showed its political effectiveness in engineering the primary defeat of John Derus, a DFL state senate candidate, by running his photograph next to a story on charities fraud on the day of the election, although Derus had nothing to do with the story.

So the sad saga of dishonest journalism continues in the Twin Cities. Many of the same characters are still there who were involved in Dan Cohen’s downfall. Most still profess to be taking the moral high ground. Cohen’s book is a useful device in reminding us what, in a particular case, that actually means.


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