Most Read: Opinions

direct signup

Today’s Opinions poll

Would you use an app that tells you the partisan affiliation of products you're considering buying?

Submit
Next
Review your answers and share
Erik Wemple
On Twitter E-mail |  On Twitter Follow |  On Facebook Fan |  RSS RSS Feed
Posted at 03:56 PM ET, 11/09/2011

Cain accuser’s outing: Competing imperatives


Karen Kraushaar, public figure (AP Photo/APTN) (AP)
From the beginning of this Herman Cain mess, Karen Kraushaar appeared to be agonizing. For privacy concerns, her name was omitted from the original Politico story that put the sexual misconduct allegations against Cain in the news. So for a while there, only a few people knew who she was.

It didn’t take long, though, for other media outlets to ascertain her identity and to contact her lawyer. In a Washington Post report, attorney Joel Bennett said that his client, a Cain accuser from his National Restaurant Association days, was considering going public with her experience.

Bennett’s accession to the story came as Cain was tooling around town denying any substance to the harassment allegations. They were “baseless,” he said over and over, essentially alleging that those who originally brought them were lying. Given all that denial, Bennett told the New York Times, “He’s basically saying: ‘I never harassed anyone. These claims have no merit and we gave them a pittance.’ I’m sure my client would have a comeback to that.”

Bolded text added to highlight something of an overstatement.

Indeed, his client had a comeback to that, but not an on-the-record comeback to that. After a couple of days of deliberations, Bennett last Friday afternoon appeared before the media and said that his client wished to remain anonymous.

That wish remained intact until yesterday, when The Daily, an iPad-only publication owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., took Kraushaar’s identity from a journo-secret to a matter of public knowledge. The short profile unleashed a fresh roar of stories on Herman Cain’s managerial bona fides.

Outed, Kraushaar came forth and spoke to various news outlets on the record to say that she’d like to organize a press conference with fellow accusers---perhaps another indication of how close she was to going public in the first place. .

Yet how did she feel about The Daily story? Had she tried to keep The Daily from publishing?

I put those questions to Kraushaar via Bennett, her attorney, but didn’t get a reply. A chat with Bennett, however, turned up very little in the way of hostility toward The Daily. “We would have preferred that they honored her privacy,” said Bennett. That’s about as pointed as Bennett will get. “The media does its job and I do my job and I’m not critical of the media.” Between 50 and 75 media outlets have contacted him regarding this case, and “no one’s abused me or mistreated me,” he adds.

And Bennett foresaw the cascading effect of The Daily piece: “Once one media outlet released it, it was likely that others would,” he said.

The Daily’s call has stirred a debate on whether naming the accuser was a righteous step on the path toward accountability in a story littered with anonymity or an improper step that impinges on a woman’s privacy.

Chiming in on the side of identity-outing is Kelly McBride, who put together a very strong argument yesterday on the Poynter site:

“There isn’t a journalistic reason to conceal the names of these women. Journalists are not bound by non-disclosure agreements that often accompany legal settlements. These women are victims of sexual harassment, not sexual assault. There is no generally accepted school of thought that guides journalists to protect individual privacy in cases like this.”

McBride argued that the mainstream news outlets that protected Kraushaar’s identity acted in a mindless, pack-animal manner, not caring to think through the rationale behind their restraint. In a Poynter chat today, Reuters media critic Jack Shafer added another plank to the full-transparency argument, noting that the accused should have the right to face their accusers: “I hold that the identity of accusers should be in almost every case completely public,” wrote Shafer.

The other side of the debate rests on a compelling set of considerations. If we are to believe what’s on the public record, Kraushaar didn’t ask for this story to come out. She lodged a complaint against Cain years ago, never hoping or expecting that she’d be the subject of a public furor. Though she’s known as a Cain “accuser,” she from all appearances hadn’t accused Cain of anything since he started his presidential campaign. And what’s in store for her if her name goes public? Here’s a sampling, as illustrated by the lede of a recent story on public Cain accuser Sharon Bialek:

A ‘gold digger’ embroiled in legal and financial difficulties who has always lived above her station and will do anything to never have to work again.
This is the portrait that has started to emerge of the fourth woman to accuse Herman Cain of sexual harassment - the first to come out publicly.

So those are the competing imperatives, which curdle into a difficult call for any editor. Me, I default to the privacy-respecting side of the divide, if only because there is—and should be—a high bar when it comes to naming a person who doesn’t hold herself out as a public figure and who faces a rough ride through a partisan slime machine if outed. Is that not a “generally accepted school of thought?”

UPDATE: A commenter below chimes in with an important question:

LOLpostMan
5:06 PM EST
So, is this a retraction of your previous post? That was a little overheated, dude. You might want to address that.

This dude is going to take up LOLpostMan on his suggestion. The “overheated” post that LOLpostMan cites is this one, in which I raised questions about the appropriateness of The Daily’s outing of Kraushaar. The point there was that the Daily pounced on this piece without demonstrating that it had the sourcing to back it up. That I found sleazy and duly said so. Yet LOLpostMan does make a valid point: The thoughts above frame this as a much closer call than the post from yesterday, an inconsistency that I am duty-bound to acknowledge.

By  |  03:56 PM ET, 11/09/2011

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company