The Star Tribune then and now

I find Saturday’s Star Tribune story by Paul McEnroe and Rochelle Olson on the expunged 1995 arrest of Republican Fifth District congressional candidate Alan Fine to be reprehensible. Under roughly similar circumstances involving Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Marlene Johnson in 1982, the Star Tribune found such a story to be reprehensible as well. What has changed? Let’s revisit a bit of Star Tribune history.
In 1982 Dan Cohen was a former Republican politician who had moved on to the public relations business. To help the Republican candidate for governor in the last days of the campaign, Cohen was asked to plant the story of Johnson’s 1970 petty theft conviction for shoplifting six dollars worth of sewing materials from a Sears store. Cohen planted the story with reporters including the Star Tribune’s Lori Sturdevant. Cohen gave Sturdevant relevant court records in exchange for a promise of confidentiality.
Smelling a rat, the Star Tribune published the story but broke its promise, identifying Cohen as the source of the story. (Sturdevant disagreed with the Star Tribune’s decision and had her byline removed from the story.) Cohen sued the Star Tribune for breach of contract. The Star Tribune lost at trial and ultimately had its claim of a First Amendment right to break its promise with impunity rejected by the Supreme Court.
The story nevertheless exploded in Cohen’s face. Having identified Cohen as the source of the story regarding Johnson’s shoplifting conviction, the Star Tribune proceeded to berate Cohen as a sleaze merchant. It did so initially in a column by Jim Klobuchar, the father of Minnesota DFL Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar. It did so again the following day in an editorial cartoon depicting Dan Cohen inside a garbage can labelled “Last Minute Campaign Smears.” The public relations agency that was his employer promptly fired Cohen. The Perpich-Johnson ticket that Cohen sought to defeat was elected by a huge margin.
In their Sunday Star Tribune story, Paul McEnroe and Rochelle Olson blow the whistle on Alan Fine for an expunged arrest that was never even charged by a prosecutor. Star Tribune reader’s representative Kate Parry now claims that the Star Tribune has “corroborated” the charge leading to Fine’s expunged arrest, even though it has done little more than recycle the underlying allegation. In 1982, the Star Tribune denounced the disclosure of Marlene Johnson’s adjudicated shoplifting charge — a charge that had been tried to conviction before a judge — as scurrilous.
Both the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press betrayed Cohen’s confidence in 1982. In Anonymous Source, his book on the case, Cohen concludes that the papers have not learned any lessons from their wrongdoing in his case:

So far as the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press are concerned, it’s business as usual. Though the papers were embarrassed nationally, locally they continue to operate like feudal lords, immune from any laws or standards, indifferent to the rights of others, duplicitous, biased, unfair, and often just downright silly…As always, the people’s right to know ends at their doorstep.

By contrast, Cohen’s closing words in the book reflect on his own behavior in the case:

Let me close by apologizing to Marlene Johnson. Providing that stale, trivial record to the press was stupid and mean-spirited. I regret what I did.

The Star Tribune’s judgment of Cohen in 1982 sits in judgment of the Star Tribune itself in 2006, as does the hard-earned perspective of Dan Cohen.


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