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Post Partisan
Posted at 01:07 PM ET, 11/07/2011

Herman Cain harassment story was good journalism


Herman Cain, unwilling to defend himself on the merits against the sexual harassment allegations against him, has taken to having his campaign pass out copies of the “journalistic code of ethics” to reporters who dare ask him questions about the matter.

Reporter-bashing is always a handy tactic, especially when you don’t have the facts on your side. Especially among Republican primary voters. So it’s no surprise that the GOP presidential candidate resorted to that cudgel during his debate with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “There are too many people in the media who are downright dishonest,” Cain said. “They do a disservice to the American people.”

Spare me the lectures about honesty from a man who denied that he was aware of a financial payment to settle the sexual harassment claims, then acknowledged it, then said he was distinguishing between a “settlement” and an “agreement.”

The “disservice to the American people” is being done by a man whose campaign first said he could only “vaguely recall” something about a harassment complaint, then proferred an obviously incomplete account about commenting on a woman’s height. He has since tried — without much success — to shut down debate on a serious question about his fitness for the presidency

If Cain wants to engage in a debate about journalistic ethics,  maybe he should read the code before he starts handing it out.

I was not actually familiar with this document, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists, and I suffer from the instinctive journalistic aversion to official codes of conduct. As the SPJ itself notes, the code “is intended not as a set of ‘rules’ but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.”

But the behavior of the press in investigating and publicizing the allegations about Cain strikes me as a paradigm of professionalism and decency surviving the hyper-speed deadline pressures of the Internet era. Nothing in the code that Cain is so eager to cite undermines that assessment. Rather, the code buttresses the reasonableness of the reporting.

“Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”  Politico spent nearly three weeks reporting the story and gave the Cain campaign 10 days to respond. Politico editor John Harris told me that his reporters repeatedly went back to the Cain campaign for comment. When not enough information was forthcoming, Harris said, he decided to hold off on publication until reporter Jonathan Martin could pose the question to Cain himself.  

“Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” Fair enough. But the key word here is “feasible.” The sources were understandably skittish about being named. The information — that two women complained about Cain’s behavior at the National Restaurant Association, that the trade group paid them a severance package after the claims — has proved reliable.   

And consider the countervailing pressures that the ethics code flags: “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.” And also, “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.”

Sexual harassment is not a sex crime; naming the target of sexual harassment is not the same intrusion as naming a rape victim, which most news organizations will not do as a matter of course.

Yet sexual harassment is also an area that requires delicate journalistic treatment, both because the person complaining about the harassment may find the publicity humiliating and the conduct itself  may be open to differing interpretations.

Of course it would be preferable to be able to use the women’s names, if they had agreed to allow that. But a decision to shield the names out of respect for the privacy of the women involved is an example of journalistic integrity, not lack thereof. And the alternative — killing the story for lack of on-the-record sources — would have been far worse. Americans preparing to elect a president have the right to know everything relevant about those seeking the office.  Politico and its competitors haven’t engaged in a “witch hunt,” as Cain claimed. They’ve practiced good journalism—and done so in a way that would stand up in any journalistic ethics class.

By  |  01:07 PM ET, 11/07/2011

 
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