At least when the media and pundits decided to suspend basic principles of fairness and decency to attack Sarah Palin for the unforgivable crime of being an outspoken conservative woman (even before she had a chance to show she deserved to be attacked for other reasons), she had been nominated for Vice President. Business executive Herman Cain, a similarly reviled aberration from the expected norm as a black Republican, is now getting equally unconscionable journalistic treatment just for getting decent poll numbers.
I will move past the race-based attacks from columnists and the MSNBC hit squad that have explicitly referred to him as an Oreo, an Uncle Tom, a black man who “knows his place,” “the GOP’s token,” and “the Sanjaya of the Republican field,” as well as the many demeaning references to him as a “joke candidate,” and go right to this weekend, when the Palin standard was on bright display.
Here is part of the interview of Cain on “Face the Nation,” after host Bob Scheiffer showed Cain’s bizarre web ad, which ends with his campaign manager taking a puff on a cigarette:
SCHIEFFER: Mr. Cain, I have to ask you what is the point of that? Having a man smoke a cigarette in a television commercial for you?
CAIN: One of the themes within this campaign is let Herman be Herman. Mark Block is a smoker. We say let Mark be Mark. That’s all we’re trying to say because we believe let people be people. He doesn’t deny that he’s a smoker.
SCHIEFFER: Are you a smoker?
CAIN: No I’m not a smoker. But I don’t have a problem if that’s his choice. So let Herman be Herman, let Martin be Martin. Let people be people. This wasn’t intended to send any subliminal signal whatsoever.
SCHIEFFER: But it does. It sends a signal that it’s cool to smoke.
CAIN: No it does not. Mark Block smokes. That’s all that ad says. We weren’t trying to say it’s cool to smoke. We have a lot of people in this country that smoke, but what I respect about Mark as a smoker, who is my chief of staff, he never smokes around me or smokes around anyone else. He goes outside.
SCHIEFFER: But he smokes on television.
CAIN: Well, he smokes on television. But there was no other subliminal message.
SCHIEFFER: Was this meant to be funny?
CAIN: It was meant to be informative. If they listen to the message where he said America has never seen a candidate like Herman Cain. That was the main point of it. The bit on the end we didn’t know whether it would be funny to some people or whether they were going to ignore it or whatever the case may be.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just tell you, it’s not funny to me. I am a cancer survivor like you.
CAIN: I am also.
SCHIEFFER: I had cancer that was smoking related. I don’t think it serves the country well, and this is an editorial opinion here, to be showing someone smoking a cigarette. You’re the frontrunner now and it seems to me as frontrunner you would have a responsibility not to take that kind of a tone in this campaign. I would suggest that perhaps as the frontrunner, you’d want to raise the level of the campaign.
CAIN: We will do that, Bob. I do respect your objection to the ad. Probably about 30 percent of the feedback was very similar to yours. It was not intended to offend anyone. Being a cancer survivor myself, I am sensitive to that sort of thing.
SCHIEFFER: Would you take the ad down?
CAIN: Well, it’s on the Internet. We didn’t run it on TV.
SCHIEFFER: Why don’t you take it off the Internet.
CAIN: It’s impossible to do now. Once you put it on the Internet it goes viral. We could take it off of our Web site but there are other sites that have already picked it up. It’s nearly impossible to erase that ad from the Internet.
SCHIEFFER: Have you ever thought of just saying to young people, don’t smoke. 400,000 people in America die every year from smoking related-
CAIN: I will have no problem saying that. In fact-
SCHIEFFER: Well, say it right now.
CAIN: Young people of America, all people, do not smoke. It is hazardous and it’s dangerous to your health. Don’t smoke. I’ve never smoked and I have encouraged people not to smoke.
SCHIEFFER: It’s not a cool thing to do.
CAIN: It is not a cool thing to do. That’s not what I was trying to say. Smoking is is not a cool thing to do.
SCHIEFFER: All right. You talked some about the missteps you have made in the campaign….
Schieffer has never, in my memory, taken it upon himself to lecture a political candidate about the quality of his or her campaign ads, demand—because an ad offends him personally!—that an ad be removed, or bully a candidate into endorsing Shieffer’s anti-smoking views. Because Cain was understandably taken aback, he did not respond as confrontationally as he should have, which would have been to say, “I’m sorry, Bob, but I’m not here to get approval of my ads from you. The campaign isn’t about you, it isn’t about your cancer, and your job isn’t to impose your sensibilities on me or tell me what ads I should run. I’ll answer your questions forthrightly, but I was under the impression that this was a news show, not a political correctness inquisition or an anti-smoking forum.”
It is not Schieffer’s role as a TV news show host to use it as a platform for his anti-smoking zealotry. Herman Cain’s campaign ads are not aimed at children, nor are they designed to make smoking look “cool”—frankly, I don’t know what the heck that ad is designed to do. But Schieffer would not, or at least has not, treated any previous candidate so disrespectfully as to discard the appropriate boundaries of his role to deliver a personal condemnation and begin dictating ad content. I don’t care, frankly, what Bob Schieffer finds funny or offensive, and it’s not his job as a newscaster to make the news about him.
That incident, however, was a relatively minor offense compared to this late-breaking cheap shot on Cain in The Politico:
“During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO.”
“The women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable, the sources said, and they signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association. The agreements also included language that bars the women from talking about their departures.”
This is almost the perfect snake strike. It is full of portent and innuendo, and impossible to check or properly assess. An accusation or two of sexual harassment involving a business executive like Cain could be completely meaningless. Ten accusations would raise serious questions. More detailed (but not much more) reports have said the complaints were based on “comments and body language” that made the women feel “uncomfortable.” I do workplace trainings in sexual harassment, and I often thank my lucky stars that none of the mostly female staffs that I have led in the past included anyone seeking a quick pay-off by intentionally misconstruing one of my off-hand comments.
Does this mean Cain didn’t behave inappropriately at some point? No. The point is that the fact that there were complaints and that the complainers were paid a settlement doesn’t mean he did, either. And because the women agreed not to speak about the incident (at risk of forfeiting their money), there is no way to confirm anything or for Cain to defend himself. Ethics verdict: Unfair.
That means the story shouldn’t have been reported at all until or unless there was something substantive to report. But when you are a conservative, black Republican surging in the polls, or a conservative white woman running for national office, the news media is unwilling to wait for substantive. Smears, innuendo and rumors are enough.