Sunday, October 30, 2011

Herman Cain and sexual harassment? (2x UPDATED)

2nd UPDATE: 11:08 p.m. EDT: Let's continue to examine the Politico report (and I apologize for the delay in getting such responses tonight; the computer I principally use at home was running slowly and periodically dropping its Internet signal. I am now on another computer.), asking whether almost 20-year-old allegations of sexual harassment qualify as news.

Let's be honest before we say anything more: If Mr. Cain were a low-in-the-polls Republican presidential candidate, then no news organization would be taking the time to investigate his personal life. Instead, he's at or near the top of almost every poll, and that ensures scrutiny that will not follow the second- or third-tier candidates.

And that gets us closer to the crux of this issue: Should the public care about such a story? Unless I am mistaken, Mr. Cain has never discussed himself in terms of perfect, holier-than-thou or otherwise the ideal man. Thus, there is no Gary Hart moment here; Mr. Cain did not challenge the media to find out something dirty about him.

In the media environment in which Politico operates, the necessity to at times skate on that fine edge of tabloid-esque cheap entertainment is there. Such stories generate eyeballs and public interest. Nevertheless, I'm not comfortable using the "well, if we didn't get this story, one of our competitors would have" defense. To me, that's akin to the question children are often asked: "Well, if your friends jump off the bridge and into the river, are you going to do it, too?"

A strong assumption also can be made here that someone (or more than one person) who dislikes Mr. Cain is attempting to play "gotcha." The possible reasons why could number into the dozens, but for our purposes let's say that if "gotcha" is indeed happening, then we have yet another reason to question how much of a story this really is.

I suggested in my original post, and I stand by these words, that Mr. Cain will continue to be dogged by the media about this issue. (Let's set aside whether he should; we already know that answer.) He will have to make a full and complete statement about it, and that likely will have to happen soon.

However, the limited amount of information in the Politico report also should put the onus on the news organization to more fully explain how the story developed, how its information was generated and whether it believes it is being fair to Mr. Cain.

I accept what someone reading this is thinking -- Politico doesn't have to defend itself; it is reporting a "true" story. That's true, but that's not good enough.

1st UPDATE: 10:49 p.m. EDT: Is Politico's approach to its report about Mr. Cain and the allegations of sexual harassment ethical? Al Tompkins from Poynter sends the following tweet: re Cain: Is it fair to report allegations of two women when you don't name them, no charges filed? Can he fight that?

At the same time, as the Washington Examiner reports, the Cain campaign is attacking Politico.
Calling the story "thinly source allegations," Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon said: "Since Washington establishment critics haven't had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain's ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can."  Gordon did not address any of the specific allegations in the report.  Asked for a more specific answer, the campaign did not provide details.
Let's set aside the attack on Politico by the Cain campaign; such responses are expected and they tell us very little.

On the other hand, there is a legitimate question that should have been asked when this post was made -- is Politico being fair to Mr. Cain?

I've seen no report denying that Mr. Cain was the central figure in the scandal, if such a word can be used in this case. Nor is there any denial that something unpleasant didn't happen. However, if we assume that the women who made the claims were not one of the sources (and that's only a presumption at this point), then comes the tricky question: Who are the "multiple sources" that Politico used to generate this story?

The general practice in the journalism industry is to use anonymous sources in limited situations -- one of them being that the individual's personal safety or professional status could be compromised. Based on the language in the Politico report (you can access it below in the ORIGINAL POST), it is apparent that the authors wanted to protect the identities of their sources, going as far in many cases of not hinting at their gender.

In such situations, the reporter must present the information to his or her boss with an explanation as to why the source's name cannot be used. The supervisor typically will verify the information and then involve others -- including the news agency's attorneys -- in making the final decision about allowing the sources to go unnamed.

What's peculiar is that no one's safety or job status would appear to be under threat here -- whatever took place did so more than 15 years ago, and none of the principal players involved are necessarily denying it.

Moreover, the confidentiality agreement (or whatever it was called at the time)  precludes the women from discussing it. Keep in mind that the women are not being asked to violate that contract stipulation because Mr. Cain is accused of some deeper, darker crime. In fact, he's not accused of anything -- except for sexually harassing two women in the mid-1990s.

What I'm building here is a scenario that suggests the anonymity of everyone involved can be justifiably questioned.

ORIGINAL POST: Politico is reporting tonight that two women left the National Restaurant Association during Herman Cain's tenure there after accusing him of sexual harassment.
During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO.
The women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable, the sources said, and they signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association. The agreements also included language that bars the women from talking about their departures.
In a series of comments over the past 10 days, Cain and his campaign repeatedly declined to respond directly about whether he ever faced allegations of sexual harassment at the restaurant association. They have also declined to address questions about specific reporting confirming that there were financial settlements in two cases in which women leveled complaints.
POLITICO has confirmed the identities of the two female restaurant association employees who complained about Cain but, for privacy concerns, is not publishing their names.
Mr. Cain will be dogged by the content of the Politico report. At some point he will have to address the issue of sexual harassment fully and carefully. Considering that he is right now that he is at or close to the top in many polls, he cannot hide. 

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