Herman Cain accuser offers the rare name and face

November 8, 2011

By coming forward to discuss a 14-year-old sexual harassment complaint against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, Sharon Bialek instantly became an exception.

The list of well-known people who have been accused of sexually inappropriate behavior is relatively long. The list of people, like Bialek, who have taken their accusations against such people to the news media or public, is not.

Clarence Thomas faced down Anita Hill’s claim of sexual harassment in televised Senate hearings; President Bill Clinton battled a lawsuit by Paula Jones and accusations of inappropriate advances by Kathleen Willey, who went on “60 Minutes” to state her case. Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy briefly became a media figure a decade ago after she alleged that she was sexually harassed by a fellow general. And Jenn Sterger had a moment in the public eye after accusing NFL quarterback Brett Favre of sending her lewd cellphone photos.

But the roster grows short after that.

Few people can remember the names of the accusers or alleged victims in the sexual misconduct episodes involving former congressmen Mark Foley, Eric Massa and Anthony Weiner; former senator Bob Packwood; former New Jersey governor James McGreevey; talk-show host Bill O’Reilly; and basketball coach Isiah Thomas. Nor can they identify a complainant in the Navy’s Tailhook incident or the landmark class-action suit against Mitsubishi Motors in 1997.

In most cases, the accusers didn’t want and didn’t seek media attention — and for the most part, the news media complied. As a general rule, the media do not report the names of alleged victims in sexually oriented cases to protect their privacy and to avoid compounding their apparent victimization.

But that practice favors the accuser over the accused — a point Cain has made repeatedly in denying the allegations against him, including on Tuesday in a televised news conference.

“There’s one name we all remember: Dominque Strauss-Kahn,” the former International Monetary Fund president who was accused of sexual assault this year, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “The accuser is given the benefit of the doubt, and the accused is left in the position of having to say, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.’ From an equity standpoint, it’s just going to be unbalanced.”

Numerous major media outlets have been aware of the identities of several other women who claim Cain harassed them but have held off publishing or airing their names or details about them. On Tuesday, however, the tablet magazine The Daily identified one of Cain’s accusers as Karen Kraushaar, a Treasury Department spokeswoman. Kraushaar was a former employee of the National Restaurant Association who received a cash settlement after she raised allegations against Cain when he headed that organization in the ’90s. Kraushaar had been reluctant to go public, but her attorney, Joel Bennet, confirmed her identity when pressed by news outlets.

All of which made Bialek’s appearance at a news conference Monday and subsequent TV appearances Tuesday unusual, even extraordinary.

Victims of harassment tend to fear even minimal public attention and often withhold their accusations as a result. Not Bialek, who came forward voluntarily.

In response, Cain’s campaign issued a statement Tuesday assailing Bialek and detailing her “long and troubled history, from the courts to personal finances.” The statement said that Bialek, who lives in the Chicago area, was allegedly involved in a paternity case and a bankruptcy filing and was a party to a series of civil lawsuits.

Cain also raised questions about Bialek’s attorney, Gloria Allred, and asked whether Bialek was seeking to gain financially by accusing Cain. In his comments Tuesday, he suggested that Bialek was a tool being used by “the Democrat machine” to undermine his candidacy.

In a series of TV interviews Tuesday, Bialek said that she had no financial motivation for coming forward and that Allred was working pro bono.

“I’m just doing this because it’s the right thing to do,” she said in one interview, adding, “I wanted to give him a platform to come clean, to tell the truth. I was trying to be nice about it, and it just didn’t work.”

Cain, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has acknowledged that the National Restaurant Association settled allegations of harassment against him when he headed the organization in the 1990s but has called the accusations “baseless.”

Even with Bialek and Kraushaar providing names and faces to accompany the allegations, Cain’s flat denials leave the issue in dispute.

And that’s probably the best way for the news media to keep handling the story, Kirtley said.

“It’s incumbent [on the media] to keep reiterating that these are allegations that have not been substantiated,” she said. “You can’t reduce this to just a simple headline.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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