The media’s relentless coverage of the non-story of Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment 15 years ago continues in defiance of all previous standards of journalistic ethics, fairness and decency.It is a disgusting spectacle, yet the number of individuals, including many of my peers, friends and colleagues, who continue to manufacture ways to blame Cain himself for his outrageous treatment continues to grow. It is almost a full week since Politico published its fact-free hit job, and still there is nothing substantive that would allow anyone to determine with certainty or even probability that Herman Cain did anything other than spark opportunistic accusations from female employees seeking a swift pay-off. Astoundingly, people who readily assume that Cain was guilty of wrongdoing based on their undefined claims and resulting cash settlements pronounce themselves “shocked” at the Cain’s defenders’ suggestion that the women themselves had no basis for their accusations. Yet that suggestion is at least as supported by the facts, or lack of same, as the conclusion that Cain did anything wrong.
Anonymous sources have been cited as damning accusers without any information whatsoever regarding the nature of the inappropriate conduct Cain was accused of, without any objective determination regarding whether such conduct actually occurred or, if it did, whether it constituted sexual harassment.
Worst of all, and this has been true throughout the episode (which I regard as a journalism scandal rather than a political one), the news stories and news commentary about Herman Cain’s alleged sexual harassment have almost totally neglected to make it clear to readers what sexual harassment is. The story has been repeatedly referred to as a “sex scandal,” which is wrong and misleading: there is no sex in the form of sexual harassment at issue. The so-called charges (there are no charges at this point) are repeatedly being called “serious,” suggesting Cain did something genuinely substantial and wrong, when that is completely unknown. A lot of conduct that can be used to support sexual harassment allegations may be neither intentional nor objectively harmful in any way. The average member of the public who does not deal with the term sexual harassment as a legal term presumes that it always involves so-called “quid pro quo” sexual harassment: a superior’s solicitation of sexual intercourse or other sexual conduct from a subordinate, using threats, direct or implicit, to make the subordinate comply.
This is Bill Clinton-style sexual harassment, which the public heard enough about during the Paula Jones matter to imprint it indelibly on its mind. It is also the kind of sexual harassment usually on display in “Mad Men” and in other fictional venues. The news media knows this, or should know it, so it has an obligation to make clear that this is not what the two women who filed complaints with the National Restaurant Association alleged, whatever it was that they alleged. This should be done as a necessary component off every single story and piece of commentary about the matter, because to do otherwise is affirmatively misleading.
Cain’s mysterious, undefined, unproven and never-described sexual harassment was what is called “hostile work environment” sexual harassment. Among the conduct that have been held in particular circumstances to constitute “hostile work environment” sexual harassment are using words of endearment or compliments of a physical nature that an employee considers inappropriate, a repeated request to get together socially that an employee considers unwelcome, jokes, songs, non-sexual touching (such as putting a hand on a woman’s shoulder), e-mails including jokes, stories or photos of a sexual or risqué nature, insults with sexual associations, such as “bitch” or “whore,” looks that an individual perceives as leering or uncomfortably intense, an individual repeatedly looking at a woman’s breast, legs or derriere…or an executive encouraging or permitting any of this conduct to occur repeatedly by other employees or, in the case of an association, members or customers. As far as sexual harassment law is concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the offender intended any of this to be disruptive or not, or whether more than one member of the extended staff finds it so.
Is this what the news reports and commentary about Cain’s phantom harassment charges have clearly suggested he was guilty of fifteen years ago? Absolutely not.
I challenge those supposedly fair and unbiased critics of Cain now arguing, in classic Big Lie fashion, that it is his reaction to the misleading and vague allegations that now condemn him, to answer these five questions:
1. Has the coverage of the Herman Cain sexual harassment charges met the ethical standards of the Society of Professional Journalism that require reporters, editors and journalists to “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error” with the addendum that “Deliberate distortion is never permissible,” when coverage has deliberately or negligently failed to define what sexual harassment is, allowing Cain’s dilemma of the stale harassment allegations to be portrayed as a “sex scandal” when it is not, and as involving unequivocal harassing conduct by Cain when there is no evidence that it did so?
2. Has the coverage of the Herman Cain sexual harassment charges met the standards of the Society of Professional Journalism that require reporters, editors and journalists to “make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent,” with the caution that “They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context”?
Let me help you with that, in case you are unable to scream out “NO!” as you should: here is a representative sample of current headlines:
- “Herman Cain tries to put sexual harassment episode behind him” (Christian Science Monitor)—Really? What episode? Can you tell me the details of the “sexual harassment episode” the headline refers to? Oh—you mean the “episode in which Cain had to respond to half-baked press accounts of unsubstantiated and dropped complaints of alleged harassing conduct?” That episode? Then why didn’t the Monitor specify that, rather than imply that there is a verified episode of sexual harassment—which is what I would call “a sexual harassment episode”? Fair? Ethical?
- “Cain Accuser Said to Allege Series of Inappropriate Behaviors” (Business Week) This headline is pure hearsay, and having it as hearsay implies that hearsay is fair proof of anything, except in extraordinary circumstances, and it is not. Who is the supposedly reliable, unbiased source who says what “Cain’s accuser” says but is unwilling to answer questions about, so her statement can be verified? Why, her lawyer…who is paid by her to represent her interests and only her interests! Is that headline fair?
- “Cain accuser complains of sex harassment incidents” (Reuters) Reuters skips the little detail that the “accuser’s” lawyer is saying what she “complains of,” not the accuser, and suggests, again, that there are specific incidents that have been identified. There aren’t. Yet a reader who was new to the matter could easily conclude, “Ah! The accuser has linked Cain to sexual harassment incidents!” But—there—are—no—specific—-incidents. Fair?
- “Cain Ties Romney in Poll Following Sexual Harassment Reports” (San Francisco Chronicle) What “reports?” There have been no reports of sexual harassment, just reports that individuals once complained of sexual harassment. A sexual harassment report suggests that there was indeed sexual harassment reported. There has not been, because we don’t know what the conduct was and whether it was sexual harassment. A “UFO” report involves a locale, a witness, and a description of what happened. A crime report involves verifiable facts, such as what was stolen and how, or who was injured and how badly. A sexual harassment report requires an actual account of alleged sexual harassment. There is no such report available or likely to be availble, yet the headline asserts that there were more than one. Fair? Accurate?
3. The current furor involves statements by one of the accuser’s lawyer, who said of the underlying conduct that prompted a complaint that has been dropped: “It qualified as sexual harassment in our opinion.” Wow! That’s damning—a lawyer paid by his client opines that his client’s assessment, which cannot and will not be tested in court, is correct! Isn’t that remarkable! How is this news?
He then said, “My client stands by the complaint she made.” So what? Casey Anthony’s attorney “stood by her claim” that she was innocent. Does a lawyer standing by his client’s claim have any bearing on what Herman Cain did or didn’t do? This is a dog-bites-man story, and yet it led the CNN news cast! Why? Is this responsible journalism?
Next: “There’s an expression that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The fact that there are more complainants tells me that it’s more likely than not that there was some sexual harassment activity by this man at that time.” Outrageous. 1) There are exactly two complainants, not “more”—this is pure deceit. 2) If his client’s claim is bogus, whether there are other claims is irrelevant. The only way we, or Cain, can judge his client’s claim is to know who she is and what her claim is. She can’t or won’t reveal either. The lawyer’s ethical course is to shut up. 3) “More likely than not that there was some sexual harassment activity by this man at that time”? This is the accuser’s lawyer talking, and that pathetic, partisan speculation is what justifies representing Herman Cain in the media as being involved in a “sex scandal?” Is that fair? Can it possibly be fair for an incident that is described this way to be used by the media to impugn the character of anybody?
4. The Washington Post reprinted an editorial cartoon from the Chattanooga Times Free Press—Clay Bennett is the unethical artist—showing a bystander viewing a Cain poster that evokes the Obama “Hope” poster, except that it reads, “GROPE.” There has never been a hint of Cain engaging in any unwelcome touching of any employee, yet this is how the “scandal” is being widely perceived, and represented to the public by its failure to explain what kind of sexual harassment is involved. Is that cartoon fair? Does it meet journalistic ethical standards?
5. If you are criticizing Herman Cain for not “responding to a crisis” effectively, when that crisis consists of an unprecedented, misleading, media-wide abandonment of fair reporting and ethical journalistic practices for the sole purpose of placing him in an impossible position that no previous or current presidential candidate has ever been subjected to, are you fair?
The answers to those questions are:
3. No, and no.
4. No, and absolutely not.
And 5.? NO. You are encouraging rotten journalism by accepting its inevitable results.
And you, like the entire American news media after a full weeks’ smear job that produced absolutely nothing, owe Herman Cain an apology.