The story was explosive: “Exclusive: Herman Cain Accused by two women of inappropriate behavior,” the headline blared.
“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,” said the lead, so intricately written it apparently took four reporters to write.
But neither the headline nor the lead said what the second paragraph declared: “The women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable. … “
Let’s stop right there. If the story was about “sexually suggestive behavior,” why did the headline and lead say “inappropriate behavior”? Surely, a Politico editor had said, “Guys, we’re burying the lead.” But no.
What followed was bizarre. Paragraph 3: Mr. Cain and his campaign denied the charges (which were not yet even spelled out). Paragraph 4: Politico knows the names of the mystery women “but, for privacy concerns, is not publishing their names.”
Paragraphs 7-10, though, broke new ground in journalist effrontery. “… Cain evaded a series of questions about sexual harassment allegations … in a tense sidewalk encounter Sunday morning.” Then, Politico made itself the story. “He was then asked, ‘Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?’ He breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was repeated three times, he responded by asking the reporter, ‘Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?’ “
“Breathed audibly”? Well, there you have it - guilty. And the story went off the rails from there. By the end of Page One of four, this: “There were also descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable and that they regarded as improper in a professional relationship.”
“Not overtly sexual”? What does that mean? Is that like Michael Scott saying, “That’s what she said!”
Now, let’s get two things clear: One, the Cain campaign, including the candidate himself, handled the entire situation horribly; and two, no one - save Mr. Cain and whoever these women are - know what really happened. But from reading the first Politico story, filled with anonymous sources and explosive charges that are not backed up, readers knew absolutely nothing.
Politico would go on to write 90-some stories about the charges in the past week, including the important Story No. 19 - “Cain Sings” (Ha, get it? He didn’t sing like a stool pigeon, he literally sang a song.) A week on from that supposed blockbuster, the story has gone virtually nowhere. More allegations have emerged - including one from another unidentified woman who never bothered to file a complaint because others had - but Politico has never divulged the contents of the “documentation describing the allegations” it said it had seen.
In the rush to judgment, some other “news” agencies forgot about facts altogether. PJ Media had this breathless lead: “Adding to the ongoing Herman Cain sexual harassment controversy, two sources have now confirmed to PJ Media that a female employee of the National Restaurant Association told associates she had been brought by Mr. Cain to his Crystal City, Virginia, residence, where she alleged ‘he had taken advantage of me.’ ” Bam: Smoking gun.
In the story, again filled with anonymous sources, was this: “… Mr. Cain allegedly took the woman by taxi to his apartment, where she spent the night and woke up. The female source told PJ Media that she witnessed the woman and Herman Cain break away from the large group as part of a smaller group.”
But that was from a later rewrite of the story. At the bottom of that version was this: “(Corrections: A previous version of this story mentioned that a source witnessed Cain and the woman entering a taxi together. This was incorrect. One source had told PJ Media she found herself in bed, but because we could not find a second source, it had been deleted. Another editor took the earlier version by error. The previous version also mentioned that the woman awoke in Cains bed - the source only claimed that the woman awoke in Cain’s apartment. The previous version incorrectly attributed comments from one source to the other source.)”
By week’s end, demands across the mainstream media grew for the women to be allowed to speak about their departures from the restaurant association. And when they were, one said, “she and her husband see no value in revisiting this matter now, nor in discussing the matter any further publicly or privately.” But, her lawyer said, the still-unidentified woman “stands by” her complaint, which was made “in good faith about a series of inappropriate behaviors and unwanted advances.”
“We’re not going to get more specific about what was physical, what was verbal,” said Joel Bennett. “It qualified as sexual harassment, in our opinion.”
And that, apparently, is good enough for Politico.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.