Politico’s rush to cane Herman Cain
Let’s assume that Herman Cain misbehaved, in the manner that is alleged in Politico, during his time as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s.
Such an assumption is hard to make—not because the allegations are unbelievable, or because Cain vehemently denied the charges today at a National Press Club lunch (“I was falsely accused”), but because Politico wrapped the allegations in journalistic gauze that frays and dissolves as you unwind it.
What are the allegations? To review, Politico reports that:
·At least two of Cain’s female employees complained about his behavior, which included “conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature.”
·These conversation took place at “hotels during conferences,” at “association events,” and at “the association’s offices.”
·Cain also allegedly made “physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable and that they regarded as improper in a professional relationship.”
·A source says one of the women “suffered what the source described as ‘an unwanted sexual advance’ from Cain at a hotel.”
·A source “closely familiar with Cain’s tenure in Washington confirmed” that the claims “disturbed members of the board who became aware of it.”
·This source tells Politico that “sealed settlements [were] reached in the plural” and are said to include payouts “in the five-figure range.”
·Cain allegedly told a campaign staffer this year that claims of sexual harassment could surface.
Granted, we’re talking about a first-day story. Politico may be holding the salient facts in reserve for its follow-ups so it can build its case against Cain a day at a time. If and when they publish them I may change my tune. But right now the subject is today’s story. Until Cain’s accusers speak forthrightly on the record, until Politico shares the underlying “documentation describing the allegations” that it claims to possess, readers have the right to gripe about the charges against Cain being as clear as dappled light on fog.
Before we drag Cain to The Hague’s highest HR court for trial, I’d like to know exactly what Cain said to the women. Did he sexually proposition them? Did he boast about his virility in a vulgar manner in their presence? Did he ask women who worked for him intrusive questions about their sex lives? I’m prepared—especially after Cain’s kooky National Press Club appearance today, at which he sang a bit of “He Looked Beyond My Faults”—to believe the worst about him. As we’ve seen during his presidential campaign, he’s impulsive, he’s an egomaniac, he loves to entertain, and he lives to provoke. Add a wandering eye and lascivious impulses to that bundle and you’ve got the makings of a classic sexual harasser.
But that’s all conjecture. Just because he’s a little bit crazy doesn’t make him a sexual harasser, nor do the vague charges made against him. (I’m very curious about what sort of “documentation” in Politico’s possession describes the decade-old charges against Cain. Transcripts? Internal HR filings? A letter of accusation? A tape-recording? A letter from the lawyers for the accusers petitioning for a cash settlement from the National Restaurant Association?)
If members of the National Restaurant Association board were disturbed by the claims against Cain, surely they were upset by something more detailed than the hazy allegations Politico presents. Likewise, I’d like to know what sort of physical gestures Cain made around his female employees that were not overtly sexual but still made women uncomfortable. If we’re going to judge Cain’s conduct, surely his gestures can be sketched in full by Politico. Why the reluctance? We’re big boys and girls, Politico. We can handle it.
In criticizing the story’s shortcomings, I mean no comfort to sexual harassers. Sexual harassment in the workplace is bad, and not just because it harms women. It injures everybody by arbitrarily discouraging half of the working-age population from contributing their skills and energies to schools, offices, factories, laboratories, and other places of labor. Subtract women from the workplace and you subtract half of all of the creative and industrious workers, damaging the value of goods and services. In the long run, even the men who sexually harass women suffer from their actions, although I doubt that insight will move them to correct their course.
Sometimes the headline of a piece reveals its inadequacies, which seems to be the case with Politico‘s “Exclusive: Two women accused Herman Cain of inappropriate behavior.” If the art of journalism is located in the specifics, the Politico piece deserves just one star.
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PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, October 31, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed