Andrew Cohen puts a new focus on complicated legal topics.
Andrew Cohen (COM’88, LAW’91) translates the law. As chief analyst and legal editor for CBS Radio News and the first legal analyst for 60 Minutes, “I act as an interpreter between the law and laypeople,” he says. “I explain to them what has just happened, what is happening, or what is about to happen, what it means to them, what it portends, what it doesn’t mean, and so forth.” Whether he’s interpreting a Supreme Court decision, a jury verdict, or opening and closing statements at trial, Cohen tries to “give context and perspective to the audience, to say to them: There’s a lot of legalese here, a lot of tactics and strategy that aren’t necessarily apparent, and here’s a sort of guide. The best legal analysts are the ones who can do that most effectively.”
This work is important, Cohen explains. “There are disconnects between the law and the people whose lives are ruled by law,” he says. “I think the vast majority of people don’t understand exactly how the law works, or they see great injustice in the law. There’s a need for people who have a background in the law to bring along everyone else and tell them what’s happening. That is, on some level, a public service when it’s done right. For me, it was a natural link between my love for journalism and my interest in the law.”
Journalism + Law
Cohen is a man who has found his passion, although it was a twist of fate—a college friendship—that inspired his entrance into journalism.
Specifically, he says, it was a friendship he made during his first days as an undergraduate at Boston University. “I stumbled into the Daily Free Press,” he says, referencing BU’s student newspaper. “When I was a freshman, I made friends with a sophomore who was at the paper. I started hanging out there, and I realized it was a special place to be.”
Cohen became absorbed into the workings of the newspaper, which boasted a stable of talented journalists, including current New York Times reporter Ian Fisher (COM’87), New York Times Metro Editor Wendell Jamieson (COM’88), and David Barboza (CAS’90) and Don Van Natta Jr. (COM’86), who both won the Pulitzer Prize while New York Times reporters. “I realized that journalism was the way I wanted to go, at least in college,” Cohen says. “I don’t know if I would have gotten there eventually, but I certainly would not have gotten there as quickly as I did.”
By the time he was a sophomore, Cohen was actively involved in the Free Press. By the time he was a junior, he was editor of the paper; by the time he was a senior, he was considering his next steps. “I’d always been interested in the law, and I thought it would be a good idea to get a law degree,” he says. “I figured that with the background in journalism and a degree in law, I could do either, or both, or some combination, which is pretty much the way it worked out.”
Cohen chose to stay close to his undergraduate roots and attend BU Law. He cites the city as a prime factor in his choice. “I appreciated Boston while I was there for those seven years,” he says. “I appreciate it even more now. I think one of the geniuses of Boston, and one of the fortunate things for BU, is the whole experience of being in a city with so many young people and so much academic life. There’s no doubt that whatever intellectual curiosity I came away with started in Boston.”
He attended law school in part, he says, because “it was about teaching me a new way to think. I went to law school because I appreciated the value of the education it would offer me, and the rigor it would bring to my thought process, my analytical skills, and my writing.”
After graduating from BU Law, Cohen became an associate at a law firm in Denver, Colorado. He practiced law for six years before transitioning back to journalism to cover the two trials of the Oklahoma City bombing defendants. The judge presiding over the trials ordered a change of venue from Oklahoma City to Denver, citing the inability of the defendants to receive a fair trial in Oklahoma City. Over his lunch breaks, Cohen would copy pretrial briefs and motions at the courthouse and analyze them in freelance pieces for the Denver Business Journal.
He sent the published pieces to news organizations, which would then quote him in their own coverage. Eventually, his work attracted the attention of CBS Radio News, which he joined in 1997. “I covered what I still consider to be two of the biggest criminal trials in American history at the highest level, and I thought that there was no comparison,” Cohen says of the bombing trials. “There was no way I was going to go back to sitting in an office drafting briefs and arguing with opposing counsel when I had the chance to translate my legal skills into journalism and reporting.”
Writing for Justice
Cohen’s recent work dissects legal and policy issues in criminal justice. He is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that tries to improve our systems of democracy and justice, and a senior editor at The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that creates and sustains a sense of national urgency for reform of and public attention to the US criminal justice system.
He’s written about the handling of prisoners with mental illness, solitary confinement, the death penalty, and what he calls “the changing perceptions of the failure of the war on drugs, which is going to be a big topic going forward as the marijuana legalization effort either really takes hold or dies.” Cohen says that he was shocked when he began to focus on the criminal justice system. “The gulf between the reality and the textbook is just appalling,” he says. “I think there’s a vast injustice that’s happening every day, in every community, that doesn’t get talked about enough and doesn’t get reformed nearly quickly enough.” He has written extensively on these problems for The Atlantic, and has received two Silver Gavel Awards from the American Bar Association for his work.
Cohen’s drive to translate, to interpret the law, especially criminal law, was influenced by a meeting he had in law school with Anthony Lewis, the author of Gideon’s Trumpet. The book recounts the Supreme Court case that established the right of criminal defendants to counsel, and it is widely hailed as a work that explains—that translates—complex legal issues in criminal law for the general public. “I was able to spend time with him,” Cohen says. “He said that he wished I would have a career as a tribune of the law. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. If I’m remembered that way, I think I’ll have had a pretty good run.”
This feature originally appeared in The Record, BU Law’s alumni magazine. Read the full issue here.
Reported by Rebecca Binder (’06)
- The Record, Fall 2017
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