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: Continue reading