A Case the Press Will Lose

By Bodine, Larry | Editor & Publisher, February 16, 1991 | Go to article overview

A Case the Press Will Lose


Bodine, Larry, Editor & Publisher


A case the press will lose

Like a desperate animal, the press has bitten off its own foot to get out of the jaws of a trap. This has come about with the notorious case of two Minnesota newspapers that were hit with a $700,000 jury verdict for exposing a confidential source in a political campaign.

The "burned" source sued for fraud and breach of contract but the Minnesota Supreme Court said the source-reporter promise was merely an "I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you'll-scratch-mine accommodation," and it let the papers go.

Now the trap has snapped shut again on the other foot. A hostile U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the outcome in the case of Dan Cohen versus the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

This is a case the press will lose. The facts, logic and emotion of this case go against the papers, and there is no one to save the press. Justice William Brennan has left the Court, leaving media-wary William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia to hold sway.

The case has been rumbling in the courts since 1982, and the well-known facts of the case really hurt the press.

They reveal that the editors felt that the source-reporter relationship is something to honor and protect except when it gets in the way of a good story.

Dan Cohen directed public relations for a Republican candidate for governor in Minnesota. In the closing days of the campaign, he called four reporters. He was offering dirt about the opposing candidate: her arrest record.

He insisted on being treated as an anonymous source and not having his name appear in any story. Reporter Lori Sturdevant of the Tribune and reporter Bill Salisbury of the Press agreed.

On checking out the story, the dirt turned out to be petty and very old. The story smacked of dirty tricks and a "boomerang effect" started in the newsroom.

At the Tribune, deputy managing editor for news Mike Finney called an editorial huddle. The paper saw several choices: (1) kill the story and face criticism for suppressing news, (2) run the story and be accused of helping a smear, or (3) partially identify the source as a Republican supporter, but misleadingly cast suspicion beyond Cohen.

Managing editor for news Frank Wright decided instead to expose Cohen, even though the paper had never dishonored a reporter-source agreement before. Sturdevant, who was not part of the huddle, demanded her name be taken off the story. She telephoned Cohen several times but he refused to agree to have his name published.

The editors at the Press also decided to "burn" Cohen. Reporter Salisbury also objected, but he let his byline appear on the story.

The stories ran the next day, naming Cohen. They did not mention the reporters' promises of confidentiality. Associated Press ran its own story, keeping its promise to protect Cohen. A local tv station also had the story but decided not to broadcast it.

Cohen was fired from his job. He sued the papers, charging breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. At the trial, the jury sided with Cohen and entered a $700,000 judgment against the papers.

The Trib's current managing editor, Tim McGuire, said the eight-year court battle did make some sources reluctant to come forward.

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