The Taming of the Press: Cohen V. Cowles Media Company

By Alexander, Laurence B. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Taming of the Press: Cohen V. Cowles Media Company


Alexander, Laurence B., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The Taming of the Press: Cohen v. Cowles Media Company. Elliot C. Rothenberg. Westport, CT & London, UK: Praeger,1999. 283 pp. $39.95 hbk.

The Taming of the Press is the story behind the case of Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. The case arose nearly a decade earlier when Dan Cohen, a Minnesota Republican-party operative working for an advertising and public relations firm, approached four reporters individually in the days leading up to the gubernatorial race and extracted promises of confidentiality from them in exchange for some documents. Unbeknownst to the reporters, the documents were copies of court files that revealed that the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor had been convicted of pent theft in 1970 and had been arrested for unlawful assembly at a construction site. Reporters for the Twin Cities' daily newspapers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, agreed to keep Cohen's identity confidential in return for the information. Editors at both newspapers decided independently to identify the source of the information despite the promises made by their reporters. As a result, Cohen lost his job and filed suit against the newspapers for violating his agreement with their reporters.

Elliot C. Rothenberg, the author, represented Cohen during most of the protracted legal proceedings. Despite compiling all of the facts and information surrounding the case, Rothenberg discusses very little about his interaction with Cohen. In the first six chapters of the seventeen-chapter book, Cohen's sole counsel introduces his client and backgrounds the events that gave rise to this legal dispute. He delivers on the book jacket's promise of a David-versus-Goliath tale of how one lawyer brought to the highest courts a significant case against Minnesota's two largest dailies with virtually no staff or assistance, working mostly out of the garage of his home. He did his own research in Local law libraries and mastered trial and appellate practice techniques through on-the-job training. One of the manv lessons he learned was that courses and textbooks were no substitute for doing a real jury trial.

By sharing his trial-preparation methods and theories, Rothenberg helps lay readers understand how he was able to persuade a jury of the harm done to Cohen when the newspapers overruled the promises of their reporters. Though Cohen lost his job as a result of his identification in print, it was the post-- disclosure actions by the newspapers that seemed to hurt them most in open court. The damaging evidence introduced at trial included several vicious attacks on Cohen: a column criticizing him for his involvement in the election-eve campaign; a cartoon picturing Cohen as a garbage can; another columnist who took the extreme steps of calling Cohen's new employer, the University of Minnesota, to inquire into why it would "hire anybody like Dan Cohen." He then wrote a column ridiculing the university for hiring Cohen. Of course, Rothenberg uses this accumulation of assaults in his argument to the jury. In so doing, he is able to show the newspapers' hypocrisy in their treatment of his client. While the newspapers attacked Cohen in print, Rothenberg showed how the newspapers had always accommodated these last-minute election tips, never revealing the identities of the sources. …

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