Who gets to be anonymous?
Yesterday, The Daily was first to name Karen Kraushaar as one of the two women who worked with Herman Cain at the National Restaurant Association and accused him of sexual harassment. As the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride wrote, Business Insider and the Daily Caller repeated the Daily‘s report that Kraushaar had made the sexual harassment claim, and NPR got her to confirm her identity as “Woman A.” Shortly thereafter, Kraushaar was talking to the New York Times, and the whole world knew who she was.
For what good reason was Kraushaar’s identity concealed in the first place?
Politico, which broke the sexual harassment claims story on Oct. 31, didn’t really explain why it did not name the accusers in its scoop, reporting only that it had “confirmed the identities of the two female restaurant association employees who complained about Cain but, for privacy concerns, is not publishing their names.”
Why grant accusers anonymity for reasons of “privacy,” but not the accused? It makes no sense, especially in the Cain episode. No legal finding of sexual harassment was made, and the only evidence that Cain committed sexual harassment is that cash settlements of $35,000 and $45,000 were reportedly paid to the two accusers. But that’s no evidence at all—the cost of defending a sexual harassment charge is so steep that paying severance of $35,000 is a bargain even if a case has little merit.
Mind you, I’m not saying that the charges against Cain have no merit. I’m as open to the argument that he created a hostile environment of sexual harassment as defined by the law as I am to other interpretations of his alleged conduct (that he’s fresh, that he’s a masher, that he’s a creep on autopilot, that he’s wicked Uncle Ernie, that he’s stepped out of line too many times, and that you’d rather have your daughter walk 10 miles home barefoot in the snow than to accept a ride home from him).
But I’m also open to the possibility that he’s no rampaging sexual monster—and you should be, too.
Politico’s decision to bestow a privacy setting on the accusers put Cain in a tough position. If he names them in an attempt to refute the charges he opens himself to charges of “violating” their privacy. By not naming them, he resigned himself to fighting phantoms.
As a phantom-fighter, Cain has not impressed, I should add. Combing through the various defenses he mounted, I was struck by their non-denial denial quality. Cain kept saying that he had not committed sexual harassment and that appears to be legally true. I know of no legal finding of sexual harassment against him. By definition, his alleged encounter with Sharon Bialek would not rise to a case of sexual harassment because she wasn’t working for him or with him at the time. (It may qualify as sexual assault, although it would have been difficult to prove as many have noted.) The question people want answered is not whether his behaviors fall under the definition of sexual harassment but whether he routinely violates current socio-sexual norms in the workplace. And Cain knows it.
Another Cain accuser—one who did not file a sexual harassment complaint—told her story to the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal last week. “She said the behavior included a private invitation to his corporate apartment” and that he had “made sexually suggestive remarks or gestures,” according to the AP. Both the AP and the Journal gave the woman anonymity because she feared “retaliation.”
Retaliation? What sort of retaliation? The accuser described in the AP and Wall Street Journal no longer works for Cain, so he can’t directly
retaliate. Obviously, he could hire detectives or others to stalk and bully his accusers. But assuming that Cain knows who has made the charges—and I think that’s a safe assumption—he’s already in a position to stage such retaliation if they ask reporters for anonymity. The fears of retaliation are a journalistic fig leaf, designed to serve reporters who want to coax a story out of reluctant sources. Few sources are ever beyond the long arm of the accused bent on retaliation.
You could say that Bialek and Kraushaar are suffering a kind of retaliation now as the press questions the motives of Cain’s accusers. The AP reports today that Kraushaar filed a second complaint against employers at the job she got after leaving the National Restaurant Association, making her look like a bit of a serial accuser. Bialek, meanwhile, is being cast as a post-bankruptcy gold-digger in the press.
I doubt very much whether any of the accusers are much appreciating the scrutiny being directed at them. I know I wouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean the press should conceal their identities. Under our system of law, bringing accusations of wrongdoing and other acts of whistleblowing is not an easy thing, nor should it be. It requires stamina and patience, and a willingness to be cross-examined. As it should! Sometimes false accusations are brought and the accused is innocent. He is just as deserving of justice as the accuser.
The shape of the Cain debate and the press treatment of the accusers both imply that we think sexual harassment is such an incendiary offense that we must observe a taboo against naming accusers. It also implies that we think that those accused of sexual harassment are so all-powerful in today’s culture that they can destroy accusers via “retaliation.”
I reject both of those views with the same vehemence that I reject the idea that women who bring civil charges of sexual harassment in the workplace must be treated like delicate flowers that will wilt and expire if scrutinized. If you’ve ever filed criminal or civil charges—or sat on a jury—you don’t need me to tell you that justice is never easy. The accused have
the right to meet their accusers in court, even when it makes the accusers uncomfortable, a standard that the Privacy for accusers is a cop-out.
I sketched out some of these thoughts this afternoon in a Poynter chat with Kelly McBride and Mallary Tenore. Make your complaints against me public by tweeting at my Twitter feed. Or send them via email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: Sharon Bialek speaks during a news conference accusing Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain of sexual harassment in New York, November 7, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid