The Portland Press Herald, after several years of getting its nerve up, has fired reporter Ted Cohen, who in July 2000 unearthed the story of George W. Bushís 1976 DWI arrest in Kennebunkport. Cohenís editor promptly spiked the story, with the result that it didnít get out into the national media until just before the 2000 election.
The discovery that the Press Herald sat on the story embarrassed executive editor Jeannine Guttman and made the paper an object of ridicule among journalists. Since then, Cohen says, "the working atmosphere has just been strained beyond words. I would say that it became much more trying once Ryan Blethen succeeded Andrew Russell as regional editor and as my superior."
Ryan Blethen, crown prince of the Press Herald and son of owner Frank Blethen, is widely considered to be a shining example of nepotism in action. In a profession that normally demands years of reporting service before editorial slots open up, Ryan Blethen was made regional editor only a few months after joining the paper. Asked whether anyone at the Press Herald thought Blethenís promotion to regional editor was deserved, Cohen responded, "As Dwight Eisenhower said when he was asked about the good qualities of his vice president Richard Nixon, ĎGimme a couple weeks and Iíll try to think of some.í "
He goes on to tick off Blethen the Youngerís transgressions: denying overtime, "calling me at home on days off, falsifying my timecard, throwing away an expense report of mine, leaving phone messages on my answering machine when he knows Iím on vacation . . . this is a man of pure fiction."
Even after the newspaperís own doctor, Dr. Jane Glass, validated Cohenís concerns about nepotism poisoning the work atmosphere at the paper, the Press Herald refused to take her suggestion that Cohen be assigned to another editor or that a mediator be called in. "Iíve been able to work with anybody else in 30 years," he says. "Iím the most productive reporter the paper has ó and Iím an old man. So, once in 30 years, you might make an exception."
Neither Guttman nor Blethen would talk to the Phoenix, but Guttman and managing editor Eric Conrad released a statement on April 6 that began, "Ted Cohen is obviously a disgruntled former employee . . . A release that Ted sent out on Monday contains so many false and misleading statements that we are not going to respond point by point." Guttman has previously said, and the statement reiterates, that Cohen essentially resigned by demanding to work with another editor.
Cohen says he has a certified letter firing him. "Itís payback," he says. "Iím going to fight." As the Phoenix went to press, he announced that the Portland Newspaper Guild has filed a grievance on his behalf. In addition, "Iíve been talking to my lawyer. Heís looking at where and how to appeal this. If it means a lawsuit, bring it on."