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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 12:33 PM ET, 10/31/2011

Herman Cain and sexual harassment: How to keep the story alive


Herman Cain, master of the art of keeping scandal story alive. Ebenhack (PHELAN EBENHACK)
Herman Cain just popped up on Fox News and answered head-on the allegations contained a Politico story about his having generated sexual-harassment complaints when he headed the National Restaurant Association. Anchor Jenna Lee wasted not a second diving into the questions now weighing on Cain’s presidential campaign, asking whether he’d ever sexually harassed anyone and if there were complaints to that effect.

Cain answered: “I’ve never sexually harassed anyone.”

And: “I’ve been falsely accused.” On a roll, he said that the claims published in Politico were “totally baseless, totally false.”

Somewhere out there are two women who may feel a lot like coming forward at this point. Those two women form the core of the Politico story, but they’re not mentioned by name. Their complaints about Cain’s conduct at the restaurant association range from this kind of weirdness:

These incidents include conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature, taking place at hotels during conferences, at other officially sanctioned restaurant association events and at the association’s offices. There were also descriptions of 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.

To an “unwanted sexual advance” from Cain at a hotel where restaurant associationers were gathered for an event. Now, thanks to Fox’s interview with Cain, we have a competing version of events, one that claims they never, ever took place.

Blanket denials of that breadth have a way of pushing people out of their cone of silence. According to the story, both women who raised complaints about Cain received separation packages that included hush clauses. So if they speak out, they run the risk of violating their packages and could have to pay back what Politico termed “five-figure” payouts. Perhaps they’ll decide it’s worth the risk.

Another big moment in the Fox interview came when Cain was asked about settlements reached with the women. Was he aware of them?

Here, Cain could have said a number of things, such as “I wasn’t involved in any settlement discussions with these people.” Or, better: “I think that’s a question for the restaurant association.” Whatever.

Contrast that to what can actually said, which was, in part, this:

“If the restaurant association did a settlement ... I wasn’t even aware of it.”

For any experienced journalist, those 13 words spell a simple concept: Follow-up story. It’s a credulity-straining claim, after all, from a guy who was both head of the organization and the target of the complaints. More to come. You can be sure of that.

By  |  12:33 PM ET, 10/31/2011

 
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