As Politico’s Herman Cain story has gained traction, a strain of media criticism has been tugging at it. It’s not an uncommon line of argument vis-a-vis a major investigative story. Here are some exemplars:
Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica:
“The story lacks the key details needed to judge whether the allegations amount to a fatal character flaw in a candidate suddenly running near the top of the polls.”
Jack Shafer of Reuters:
“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.”
Don Van Natta of the New York Times commented on Twitter that Shafer and Engelberg had turned in “brilliant smackdowns of @POLITICO’s lame Herman Cain ‘scoop.’”
Richard Miniter of Forbes:
“Indeed, no one — the two women, the National Restaurant Association board member that Politico cites as its source, Politico itself, one of the aggrieved women’s attorney Joel Bennett, the National Restaurant Association itself — has supplied any concrete details of alleged harassment.”
Yesterday CNN’s Howard Kurtz pressed Politico’s Jonathan Martin: ”Let’s talk about the first story last Sunday...and what it didn’t contain in the way of details.”
Why all these demands?
Toggling back to the Politico piece that kicked it all off, behold this sentence:
A second source with close ties to the restaurant association from that period said the woman revealed at the time that she had suffered what the source described as “an unwanted sexual advance” from Cain at a hotel where an event involving the group was taking place.
The Associated Press reported later in the week that a third woman had fielded a “private invitation” to his apartment.
What more detail here is necessary? As far as the “unwanted sexual advance” goes, do people need to know the body language? The pickup line? Apparently that’s part of it. In the CNN segment yesterday, Politico’s Martin noted that a Cain underling had complained of an “explicit sexual overture” at a hotel.
Kurtz: “But you can’t tell me what the overture is.”
Says Shafer: “Journalism is about the details; journalism isn’t about the vagaries.”
Amanda Hess, a former colleague of mine at Washington City Paper and TBD, where she was a sex-and-gender columnist, might have something to say about this. What about this craving for detail, Hess? Is that mere prurience? Or is it the test of a more sturdily reported story, as the detail advocates would say?
“People like to hear the ‘sexy’ details, even when they are placed in the context of assault or harassment. These sorts of play-by-plays are never as central to allegations of simple assaults or non-sexual verbal abuse. When the DSK allegations arose, people presumably wanted to hear details to determine whether they deemed the allegations reasonable or not. But how is anyone outside of law enforcement really situated to make that call? Mainly, they wanted to hear about [oral sex]. Obviously, the airing of these details can be traumatizing, embarrassing, or otherwise personally damaging to victims, even in the case of non-physical sexual harassment, so the focus on releasing them is extremely suspect.”
In the absence of details, however, justice is hard to come by, as Miniter and Shafer argue. “He doesn’t have anything specific to respond to,” says Miniter. “Sexual harassment is a broad range of things and where you are on that spectrum makes a big difference. ‘If you want that promotion you must sleep with me.’ Everyone would see that as disqualifying. But if he says to the woman, ’Nice earrings,’ I think most people would see that as harmless if inappropriate.”
Shafer poses the question: What if he didn’t do these things? “I would hold out there there is a chance that Cain is innocent. How is he going to get his good name back at all? I don’t know if you worry about that,” continues Shafer (ouch!). “I do.”
Good points. But the call for more minutiae tends to diminish what was in the original report: Complaints, and settlements, about unwanted sexual advances. That’s not quite as granular as knowing how Cain was alleged to have moved his eyebrows. It’s also not as general as “sexually inappropriate conduct,” either.
When I first read about the “unwanted sexual advance” at the hotel, I assumed that the allegation was that Cain had invited the woman to his hotel room. Later in the week, Politico added some detail:
“The sources say the woman told them Cain invited her to his hotel room at the event, and that both the context and the way Cain phrased the invitation made her feel extremely uncomfortable, even incensed.”
Even without the stuff about the “context and the way,” an invitation to a hotel room is enough detail for me. It’s also as much detail as any woman wants to encounter at work. Gross.
Joel Bennett, the attorney for one of the complainants, has butted into the outcry for specifics:
“I’ve received several nasty e-mails from people....calling me a sleazeball and a scumbag....I recognize the frustration in the media and the general population about not getting more details about the complaint. But you have to realize that for a woman to go public on this, it invites a lot of scrutiny. People have to remember what happened to Anita Hill.”
All of which tees up the next step in this story. Radar is reporting that very famous attorney Gloria Allred is representing a client who will go public with her case today. Apparently details will be offered.
UPDATE: Engelberg writes in with these thoughts:
The original Politico story disclosed two newsworthy facts: The National Restaurant Association paid sealed settlements to two women who alleged sexual harassment and the money involved was “five figures.’’
Since then, we’ve learned that at least one of these settlements amounted to a year’s salary, that the two agreements appear to be $35,000 and $45,000, that a third woman was poised to file a complaint, and that Cain has subsequently said inappropriate things in at least one instance on the campaign trail. Taken together, all of these disclosures help readers assess the meaning of the “two sealed settlements” lead from the first story.
That said, I continue to think that it would helpful to have a better sense of what kind of behavior is at issue. As you’ve no doubt noticed, one purported witness said that if the full truth were known, it would drive Cain from the race. I have no idea whether that’s true, but the polls suggest that voters have yet to see anything of remotely that magnitude. Now, in fairness, it may be that some of Cain supporters will never regard anything created by the media as sufficient proof. Or it may be that this witness has a misguided idea of what voters would find appalling.
It’s been my experience that stories like this one come into focus slowly and we may yet hear things that change people’s view of what Cain has or has not done.