The Making of a Pundit

Here's how Andrew Cohen became one of the legal biz's foremost talking heads.

For better or worse, Denver may be home to more media-savvy legal experts per capita than any other American city: Scott Robinson, Dan Caplis, Craig Silverman and Larry Posner, among others, appear frequently in local TV, radio and print reports and receive national exposure when an area story grabs the attention of voyeurs beyond Colorado's borders. Can you say "JonBenét Ramsey"? I knew you could.

But somewhere along the line, these veteran opinion-providers were passed by 35-year-old Andrew Cohen, a relatively new kid on the block who's currently contributing to news organizations across the information spectrum. He regularly writes columns for the Denver Post and has published articles in numerous major newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today. He serves as a commentator for CBS Radio. He pens essays for CBS.com. Several weeks ago he signed a new two-year contract to serve as an on-air correspondent for the CBS television network, for which he's covered sprawling stories such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the election fiasco in Florida. Moreover, he's just inked a new pact to fill the same role locally at Channel 4, a CBS affiliate, as well as to assemble his thoughts on issues of the day in Gavel to Gavel, a feature that will be accessible on Channel 4's Web site, kcncnews4.com. "I'll be doing a lot of different things," Cohen says, understating the situation considerably.

How on earth has Cohen managed to score on so many journalistic fields in such a short amount of time? One reason is that he's uncommonly good at his chosen task. In contrast to analysts who are transparently partisan, or who loudly voice controversial positions merely to get a rise out of an increasingly cynical audience (the Bill O'Reilly/Chris Matthews approach), Cohen attempts to explain complex legal issues as clearly and objectively as possible. "You're better off shedding light than heat," he notes, "and that's what I try to do."

He's also the beneficiary of good timing: Thanks to the Ramsey case, the Oklahoma City bombing trials and Columbine, the Denver area has been the setting for an awful lot of big news stories over the past six years or so, and Cohen took advantage of the career opportunities these incidents presented. But more to the point, he has exhibited a persistence and single-mindedness that seem straight out of a Hollywood biopic. "I really wanted to find a way to make this work," he says. "And so far, I have."

A native of Montreal, Canada, Cohen moved with his family to the Denver area in the late '70s: "I'm a graduate of Cherry Creek High; I was a classmate of Aimee Sporer," he allows, cleverly working in a reference to a new colleague. He subsequently attended Boston University, where he became editor of the school's independent student newspaper, the Daily Free Press. His tenure there, during which he had the opportunity to interview such newsmakers as human-rights activist Elie Wiesel and former Philippines leader Corazon Aquino, had a big impact on him: "I fell head over heels for journalism." But he wanted to settle in Colorado, and when he failed to receive job offers that would bring him back to the state in style, he decided to attend law school at the university "in the hope that at some point in the future I could figure out a way to hop back into journalism at something higher than ground level." In 1991, he passed his bar exam and landed an associate position at a local firm, Gorsuch Kirgis, where he worked as a civil litigator helping senior partners with commercial, probate or regulatory concerns. However, he couldn't kick his journalism jones, and in the mid-'90s, after doing a few freelance stories for tiny publications, he joined the Denver Press Club with the idea of getting to know the gatekeepers at the town's daily newspapers.

This tack proved to be an effective one. Soon Cohen was on shmoozing terms with the likes of Vince Carroll, who oversaw the editorial page for the Rocky Mountain News, Press Club habitué Chuck Green, then doing likewise at the Denver Post, and Denver Business Journal editor Henry Dubroff, who began publishing Cohen pieces on a bimonthly basis. Even though the Journal assignments paid a whopping $50 a crack, Cohen says, "I began to get the hint about what I should be doing. I realized, if I'm getting a bigger thrill about some article I wrote than I was for working with a client, maybe I'm doing the wrong thing."

When the bombing trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols rolled into town, Cohen convinced Dubroff to let him cover it for the Journal -- and through connections and cajoling, he received commitments from CBS Radio and Channel 2 to let him do the same, even though his broadcasting experience at that point consisted mainly of a handful of impromptu appearances on local TV and radio newscasts. With these agreements in hand, he took a leave of absence from his law firm to cover the courtroom occurrences full-time and wound up with even more opportunities than he'd anticipated. With the explosion of the cable-news industry in the wake of the O.J. Simpson case, networks needed to fill an unprecedented amount of time -- and Cohen, a handy lawyer who knew the case inside and out, was the perfect fellow to help them. As a result, he popped up often on CNN and was eventually hired by Fox News to yak about the Nichols phase of the proceedings.

After Nichols was convicted in early 1998, Cohen feared that his ride was over, and with good reason: Fox News, which was moving in a more histrionic direction, dropped him. But CBS Radio kept him on retainer, as did Channel 2, and when the Monica Lewinsky affair broke, he was back in business. The Clinton-Lewinsky shenanigans kept him going for the better part of a year, and after the impeachment bid fell short, the machinations of the JonBenét Ramsey grand jury picked up the slack. While covering the latter, he appeared a time or two on CBS's The Early Show, which brought him to the attention of CBS's television arm -- and in February 2000, executives decided to bring Cohen into the fold. A few months later, he was on the Elian Gonzalez beat for both CBS radio and TV -- and when the presidential election results in Florida were called into question, Cohen got the call as well. "They sent me thinking it was going to be a couple days," Cohen says, "but it ended up being five weeks." He calls working side by side with CBS's heaviest hitters, including Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer and John Roberts, "an amazing experience. When I was covering the McVeigh trial, I remember thinking, 'I'm never going to be on a bigger story.' But after that was impeachment, and then the election, which was a magnitude different from anything else I'd done."

Clearly, Cohen has come a long way since the days when he was sucking up to barstool-warmers at the Denver Press Club. But he retains a becoming modesty about his rise to the peak of punditry, as well as a respect for viewers and listeners that's all too rare in his profession.

"I'm not old enough or experienced enough to cast myself as a legal expert," he says. "So I try to concentrate on giving people the information and perspective they need to reach their own conclusions. I think people who are going to read my stuff or watch me on TV or listen on the radio are smart enough to make up their own minds."

A death in the family: Radio is a business fueled by gossip, so it's no surprise that after longtime Denver DJ Paxton Mills was found dead in Aspen on June 25 only days after his departure from the high-profile morning show on KOOL 105, speculation ran neck and neck with sorrow. The "Comments and Rumors" section of Rob Hatch's essential Web site, denverradio.net, offers the entire range of reactions, from muted grief to angry accusations, sometimes spilling over into complete irresponsibility.

Granted, some of these responses are understandable. The first reports out of Aspen didn't list a cause of death, leading many to conclude that Mills had committed suicide. (The local coroner later pinned the blame on heart disease.) In addition, the circumstances of Mills's departure from KOOL remain a bit muddy. When interviewed by yours truly on June 21, the day after Mills's final show with partner Rick "The Coach" Marshall, the station's overseer, Infinity Radio Denver vice president and general manager Steve Keeney, complimented the host -- "Paxton is a great talent" -- but explained the split by saying, "We just felt we had to part ways," which implies that Mills might not have come up with the idea of leaving on his own. But in a conversation after Mills's death, Keeney backed away from the earlier comment, which he characterized as unintentionally misleading, and insisted that Mills had "resigned of his own volition, for personal reasons -- and I had every reason to believe he was addressing them until I received the phone call telling me what had happened."

In the end, of course, what matter most are the human dimensions of the story -- not just Mills's death at age 52, but the impact of it on his fans and colleagues. The event serves as a reminder that although radio is a game in many respects, it affects real people in very real ways.

A tactic named sue: The main subject of this column's June 14 edition was a newly passed city council ordinance intended to prevent individuals from panhandling or selling products on Denver medians. As noted in that piece, a nearly identical proposal was dumped by the council in 1999 when the Denver dailies, which were then using homeless people to hawk newspapers at intersections, threatened to fight such a rule in court. Now, according to a June 28 Denver Post article, the Downtown Denver Partnership is asking the council's public-works committee to get behind a plan that would push newspaper boxes off Denver's 16th Street Mall -- and guess what? Jesse D. Powell Jr., sales and marketing manager for the Denver Newspaper Agency, is quoted as saying the papers will file suit against the city if it goes along with this idea.

Will the council risk a lawsuit and pass this new ordinance? When street hawkers fly.

Going native: For the past several weeks, Channel 9 has been running a feature on its weekday morning show called "You Know You're a Native When...," in which viewers born in Colorado finish the title sentence with cutesy anecdotes that recent arrivals won't understand. So allow me, a native as well, to broaden the scope a bit. You know you're a native when...you're insulted by the embarrassing parochialism and monstrous stupidity of boneheaded gimmicks like "You Know You're a Native When..."

Is your refrigerator running? Newsblues.com, a TV-news gossip site, recently reported that a Fox affiliate in Hartford, Connecticut, responded on the air to an e-mail supposedly written by "Haywood Jablome," which all you middle-schoolers out there know to pronounce "Hey, wouldja blow me?" It was the esteemed Mr. Jablome's second recent media appearance: A couple weeks before, the New York Post quoted "Heywood Jablome, 41, a Manhattan real estate agent," in a piece about investment brokerages that double as espresso bars. In reporting the Post gaffe, the New York Press noted that an apparent relative of this twosome, "Haywood Jablomi," was quoted three years back by Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel. At the time, the Sentinel scribe reported, Haywood was "chuckling with his two friends."

Who, no doubt, were named Ima Hottie and R.U. Horny.

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