Courting Disaster: Perfidy and the Press

The press has made a sorry spectacle of itself at the Supreme Court this year and may soon take a drubbing for it.

In two big pending cases, many of the nation’ largest news organizations have contended that the First Amendment licenses journalists to engage in grossly unethical conduct.

Here’ hoping that these wrongheaded and myopic claims do not provoke the justices-some of whom have been itching for a chance to stick it to the press-into an overreaction that could do the First Amendment lasting damage.

In last week’ oral argument in Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. No. 90-634. Minnesota’ two largest newspapers told the Court that the First Amendment means journalists can betray their sources whenever they please.

The papers are backed up by some of the nation’ largest news organizations, which have long claimed that the same First Amendment requires courts to shield their sources from subpoenas by honoring their ironclad promises of anonymity.

The press’s chance of having it both ways-of winning a right to breach promises of anonymity to sources without damaging its claimed right to protect them-approaches zero.

The looming danger is a possible holding that the First Amendment has nothing to say about reporters and their sources-which would destroy the fragile principle that currently protects sources from court-ordered disclosure. That is one reason a number of First Amendment lawyers privately express horror at the press’s posture in the case.

The Minnesota newspapers say their right to publish the whole truth sometimes overrides their ethical duty to honor their promises. So it may, but only in rare cases-for example, if a source breaks his side of the bargain by falsely accusing others of the leak-and this is not one of those cases.

It does not help that the overreaching arguments by the two newspapers and their allies come on the heels of contentions by some of the same news organizations in another pending case-Masson v. The New Yorker, No. 89-1799-that the First Amendment entitles them to fictionalize quotations deliberately.

Nor does it help that the Minnesota newspapers acted lamely every step of the way: Their reporters too casually promised anonymity to a political operative peddling dirt about an opposing candidate. Then their editors broke those promises by printing the source’s name and attacking him-with no reference to their own promise of anonymity and their breach of it. Then they litigated a suit that they should have settled.

Nor does it help that the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press, the Gannett Co., the New York Times Co., and the Times Mirror Co., among others, directly acknowledge nowhere in their joint amicus brief that the Minnesota newspapers’ conduct was unethical. Indeed, while arguing that the law must give way to journalistic "self-policing," they suggest that conduct was "far from unorthodox"!

All this increases the risk that this bad case will make bad law by provoking a broad decision that opens the courthouse doors to disgruntled sources pressing false claims.

A happier result, which would protect scrupulous reporters from the risk of million-dollar verdicts if they lose courtroom swearing contests to litigious sources with selective memories, would be a holding that such suits must rest on clear and convincing evidence, not simply uncorroborated allegations of betrayal.

In the Cohen case, it is undisputed that the newspapers broke unambiguous promises by their reporters. Here’s what happened:

Dan Cohen, apolitical operative doing paid work for the Republican gubernatorial ticket, decided with other high-level campaign workers to spread negative information about Marlene Johnson, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

Six days before the election, Cohen met individually with reporters for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and two other outlets. He offered to hand them unspecified materials, which he hinted involved a candidate, if they would first promise him anonymity.

The reporters agreed at once. This was probably unwise-they could at least have probed for more information before buying a pig in a poke-but unfortunately routine.

Cohen’s materials turned out to be old public court records showing misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly against Johnson in 1969, which were later dismissed, and a 1970 conviction for petty theft, which was later set aside.

The records did not disclose (and Cohen apparently did not know) how trivial the incidents really were: The theft charge was for leaving a store without paying for $6 in sewing materials at a time when Johnson was upset and disoriented by her father’s death. The unlawful-assembly charges grew out of a political protest.

The editors of the two newspapers were understandably concerned that this was an effort to enlist them in a cheap shot, while disguising the Republican campaign’s highly newsworthy role. To solve these problems, they chose perfidy.

Rather than spiking the story, or stressing the pettiness of the charges and the Republican campaign’s role (which it denied) in disseminating them, both papers ran articles naming Cohen as their source, over their reporters’ objections.

Cohen was fired from his job as an advertising agency executive that day. He sued, winning $200,000 for breach of contract and $500,000 in punitive damages for fraud.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled for the newspapers on appeal. It held unanimously that a reporter-source promise was not a binding contract under state law. And it ruled 4-2 that the doctrine of promissory estoppel did not apply under all the circumstances in this case, in part because imposing liability "would violate defendants" First Amendment rights."

Cohen appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the newspapers’ best chance of avoiding disaster lies in the ambiguity of the promissory estoppel holding: The Court might find it has no jurisdiction to decide the First Amendment issue because the Minnesota decision arguably rests on independent state-law grounds.

But the Minneapolis lawyer who last week argued the case for the newspapers, John French, spent so much time sanctimoniously wrapping his clients in the First Amendment that he seemed in danger of losing even Justice Thurgood Marshall, usually a friend of the press in First Amendment cases.

After hearing French stress the newspapers’ right to bring out the whole truth by publishing Cohen’s identity, Marshall asked whether they had also published their broken promises to Cohen.

French dodged. Marshall, knowing the answer was no, pressed for an admission. He finally got one.

"Now you’re talking about truth," Marshall growled with evident distaste. "You didn’t publish all the truth."

"That is a subject to be left to editorial judgment," French said, conceding nothing while digging himself deeper into his hole. "Whether the decision is fair or unfair," he added, "the decision belongs to the editors."

Deeper still: Justices Antonin Scalia and David Souter posed hypotheticals-suppose the editors had decided to keep a reporter’s promise but the reporter then decided to break it and bring out the whole truth by leaking Cohen’s identity to another publication. Would the newspaper have a claim against the reporter?

Why, sure, responded French, suddenly sounding more like a management-labor lawyer than a champion of the First Amendment. Why, that would be turning over "proprietary information." Why, that would violate the reporter’s fiduciary duties to his employer- promises that, French implied, are far more sacred than a mere reporter’s promises to a mere source.

A.J. Liebling was being ironic when he said, "Fredom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." French, sadly, was quite serious when he told the Court much the same thing.

Justice Anthony Kennedy observed that all this added up to "a very odd calculus." French, seemingly oblivious to the trap he had walked into, grandly declared that "the press in our country stands as a surrogate for the public." So it should. But the press’s claim to that high mission rings hollow when it presents itself as a privileged caste, demanding the right to violate basic ethical and legal standards that others must obey.