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At War Against the Media
Dan Cohen ©2005
“Promises of confidentiality to news sources are the grease that helps make the wheels of journalism turn, especially in investigative reporting.
“Dan Cohen was a good inside player and his insights are valuable reading.”
“Dan Cohen is a real-life Don Quixote who titled big media windmills and ultimately wounded them in the highest of venues, the United States Supreme Court. Anonymous Source compellingly and richly details how one editorial decision – to break the promise of confidentiality – made by two newspapers can dramatically change one life… The book is a must-read for those who decide what to print and perhaps even more so for those who question what gets printed.”
“Old sins may be forgiven, but in politics, they are rarely forgotten. Anonymous Source takes us on a fast-moving ride through an insider’s world of politics, law, and the media. From the dingy depositories where old criminal records are stored, to the backrooms where pols and reporters plot their moves and cut their deals, and all the way up to the top court in the land, we are in the hands of an expert, who knows how to tell a story and maintain the suspense page after page.
Dan Cohen had been an up-and-coming young politician. But that was many years ago. Now he was hanging on by his fingernails doing public relations for a midsize advertising agency. One of his clients was in the final days of a losing campaign for governor. In a desperate move to revive the campaign, the candidate’s top-level teams had hit upon a plan to disclose that the rival candidate’s running mate, the first woman ever to seek statewide office, had once been convicted of shoplifting.
So the generals called a meeting – and invited Cohen, who agreed to act as an “anonymous source” and provide the press with the legal record of the shoplifting conviction. Though the media outlets agreed not to disclose his name in exchange for the documents, the next day the papers ran the shoplifting story – and breaking their promise Cohen – revealed that he was the source of the news. Cohen’s candidate lost the election. Cohen was fired from his job and became all but unemployable. He sued the papers for breach of contract. They pleaded that their actions were protected under the First Amendment.
When Cohen’s first lawyer, a prominent litigator, realized what he was up against in taking on the media, he resigned from the case. Cohen finally found another attorney, a soul mate, who, like himself, had once been a successful politician, but now was a sole practitioner, working out of his home. He had never tried a lawsuit before a jury. In a pulp fiction twist, the attorney for the lead paper was Cohen’s lawyer’s ex-wife. Cohen v. Cowles Media went through five court proceedings. When it finally reached the United States Supreme Court, it was decided by a 5-4 vote. The case has become a landmark of First Amendment law. It has been cited more than 500 times, and is studied in every journalism school in the country.
Anonymous Source is more than the story of a lawsuit. It is a true David and Goliath story of two unlikely characters who faced off against what is arguably the most powerful institution in the country outside of government itself. It is the story of human conflict between adversaries playing for the highest possible stakes, their honor and reputation, before the entire nation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dan Cohen has written twenty books, many of them as a ghost writer – an appropriate pursuit for an “anonymous source.” He is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, a former president of the Minneapolis City Council and of the Minneapolis Planning Commission. He lives in Minneapolis.