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Whose Fault Is Scott Lee Cohen?

The reporter who didn't pay enough attention is now the scapegoat for everybody who paid none at all.



Illinois is neither blue nor red. Scott Lee Cohen just made everyone a libertarian. One hard look at the permanent record of the Democratic Party's new nominee for lieutenant governor—a look that might have been more profitably taken a week before the primary rather than the day after it—and all voices rose as one. Why do we even have this useless office? We need to get rid of it!

That's what libertarians say: the best government is the least government. But there are other ways to go. We could keep the position but assign it some constitutional responsibilities. Or we could think harder and deeper. The fuss over Cohen diverts us from the primary's real abomination—which is that our choice to lead a state that's close to bankruptcy will likely be between a Republican who's cool with creationism in the public schools and the Democrat whose appointment as Chicago's revenue director Harold Washington once called his "greatest mistake in government."

The catastrophic parade of the corrupt and the inept through the governor's office could be brought to a screeching halt simply by eliminating that office. We'd kill two birds with one stone. If we do away with the governor, the office of lieutenant governor would attract a much higher class of candidate. And then the media would probably pay some attention to it.

On every checklist there are things to be done that we can barely bring ourselves to do. Tedious, marginal, thankless things that repulse our attention. We tell ourselves we'll get back to them later and later tell ourselves we've already dealt with them. Or we tell ourselves they are simply not as important as something—anything—we could be worrying about instead. This is why planes crash. And why no one ever pays any attention to the race for lieutenant governor.

When the Democrats nominated Lyndon LaRouche acolyte Mark Fairchild for the post in 1986, it wasn't because the LaRouchies were masters of deceit. But until it was too late, neither the press nor anybody else gave Fairchild a thought. It wouldn't have taken a team of reporters plus a grant from the Knight Foundation and a helping hand from ProPublica for the press to have rooted out the colorful facts and allegations about Cohen that were readily available in police and court records. But if any reporter intended to do that, he or she intended to do it tomorrow.

Then Cohen won the election and tomorrow was suddenly here, triggering a burst of apologies and confessions.

From the Trib's John Kass (on WGN): "Our job is to find stuff out, is to vet and scrub every candidate. And that wasn't done in this case. We get paid to do this . . . I can't explain it. . . . I'm sorry. I won't let it happen again."

From Eric Zorn, in the Sunday Tribune (after making a list of columns he'd written instead, including one on a dubious plot twist in Up in the Air and one on getting his watchband replaced): "In other words, I had plenty of time and column space to have looked into the resumés and backgrounds of the men running for lieutenant governor. . . . I didn't. I belong to the rather large group of state and local media—including bloggers—who deserve a share of the blame."

Nice touch. Not even the bloggers—and aren't there millions of them with nothing to do but clean up after the MSM?—give a rat's patoot about the race for lieutenant governor.

And here's Mark Brown in the Sunday Sun-Times: "We in the news media failed the voters by missing the story, and now we can't let up until we have atoned for our sins by pounding him into submission."

Brown didn't pay enough attention to Scott Lee Cohen and thus became the scapegoat for everybody who didn't pay any. Brown got to know Cohen back in November 2008 when Cohen, a pawnbroker, sent out a news release announcing he'd just given a guy who needed to cover his daughter's college costs $1,500 for his diamond-inlaid dentures. It was a screwball story on a day when there was nothing much to write about, and Brown bit. So naturally Cohen went back to Brown last March when he decided to run for lieutenant governor.

As Brown explained in the column he wrote then on Cohen's political ambitions, Cohen really wanted to run for governor but his PR guy talked him out of it. Lieutenant governor, Brown observed, more presciently than he knew, "was a more realistic goal for a political novice." And he dutifully explained that Cohen wanted to make a "preemptive strike" on an embarrassing matter in his background: "his 2005 arrest in a domestic battery case involving a girlfriend with whom he was living while his divorce was pending. The charges were dropped when the woman did not appear in court," Brown went on, "and he denied he did anything wrong in the first place."

To Brown, everything about Cohen was pretty goofy. "I'm sure that's more than you want to know about any candidate for lieutenant governor a year before the election," he cracked, "but as I say, it's not often you find a pawnbroker with political aspirations."

Brown's third column on Cohen ran on January 21. By this time Cohen had spent close to $2 million of his own money on his campaign, which was no longer a joke. By now Brown was getting calls from concerned Democrats asking him to do something. These weren't party bosses, he says, and they weren't formally tied to Cohen's opponents. Brown describes them as "public-spirited" party members who'd recognized that "hey, this guy could win. We could have a problem here." They made sure Brown remembered Mark Fairchild.

But if they knew any more about Cohen than Brown had already reported, they didn't mention it to Brown. They wanted Brown to rewrite the column he'd written the previous March, but this time, instead of mentioning Cohen's arrest down low, mention it up high, and instead of writing to chuckle at Cohen, write to destroy him.

And Brown wasn't about to do that. He didn't think Cohen had any business being lieutenant governor, but he thought of him as a goof, not a menace. There were six candidates in the race and he didn't see it as his job to do a "character assassination" on one of them for the benefit of the other five, about whom no one knew anything either.

"I should have pulled the records," he says today. But not even Cohen's opponents pulled the records. Nor did virtuous Democrats haunted by the Mark Fairchild debacle.

Brown's third column on Cohen was as much a defense as an attack. He chided Cohen for running as a "Chicago businessman" instead of a pawnbroker, but he said the comparisons he'd been hearing of Cohen to Fairchild were a "little harsh. . . . Just because he is an unknown doesn't make him a time bomb." He didn't mention the arrest at all.

That had to wait for his fourth column on Cohen, a couple days after Cohen had won the primary. "Let the record reflect that on the very day last March that Scott Lee Cohen announced his campaign for lieutenant governor," Brown began, "he voluntarily disclosed he had once been arrested in what he described as a domestic battery case involving a live-in girlfriend. . . . The problem for Cohen was that he made his announcement to me, and I wasn't taking him very seriously. How was I to know way back then that the Democratic voters of Illinois would be so dumb as to elect him, brainwashed by millions of dollars in advertising about his job fairs?"

But it wasn't a problem for Cohen. It was a problem for Brown. Brown raked up his past with Cohen on Thursday, and by the time I talked to him Friday afternoon he'd been through the grinder and come out the other side. "I was more combative about it yesterday," he said. "I was getting a lot of nasty e-mails from people yesterday saying it was my fault, and so I was more inclined to fight with them. But as I thought about it overnight, I wish I'd done more."

But he hadn't lost sight of why he didn't. "If three months ago I'd written a story about this nothing candidate for lieutenant governor who had this kind of baggage," he told me, "would people have said 'This is a great public service!' or would they have said, 'Why are you picking on this mope?'"

Brown went on: "There is not enough manpower left in the newspaper business to vet the candidates for down-ballot offices."

For that matter, how much vetting did the candidates for governor actually get? Because candidates for office are so willing to trash one another, especially during primaries, the press tends to hold its nose and its fire. It treats the primaries as a food fight it's willing to describe but won't get swept up in. Candidates who stay on the edges of the fight stay on the edges of the coverage—like state senator Bill Brady of Bloomington, for instance. He was the one downstate candidate for governor in the crowded Republican field, and by pulling approximately one vote in five, he came out of election night leading it. Brown observed that even after the primary Brady wasn't attracting much attention. "We're so busy concentrating on Cohen, and we should be concentrating on Brady because we don't know anything about him," Brown said. "He didn't really campaign up here, and he's the one guy nobody bothered to go after."

As for Quinn, it wasn't the media that dug up the old video of Harold Washington trashing Quinn's brief performance as revenue director. "I don't think that was a press issue to raise," said Brown. The video became news only because Dan Hynes's camp turned it into a devastating attack ad.

There are good reasons why a newspaper—had it come across the video—might not have used it. It was 23 years old, Washington is dead, and who's to say Quinn hasn't changed over the years, or that Washington might not have spoken differently of Quinn on another day? (Though Alton Miller, Washington's press secretary, recalls Quinn as a "showboater" who "kind of broke Harold's heart.") And we can only imagine what Washington was saying at the same time about Hynes's father, Tom Hynes, a Democrat who ran against Washington for mayor in '87.

"In the part of the world where Dan Hynes came from, they viewed anything Harold Washington had to do or say with contempt," Brown told me. "To try to use him to make their point—I just thought it was low."

Low but fair—by political standards. "At the same time," Brown went on, "it did raise a legitimate point, and that's why it resonated. There are doubts about Pat Quinn's ability to run anything."

Political reporters have plenty of doubts about everyone who runs for office. "On the one hand, we don't know enough, but on the other we know a little something about everybody, and usually it's something that's not good," Brown said. He knew a little something about Cohen that wasn't good, but it was up to Cohen's opponents to fling that overripe tomato.   v

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