Let’s Slow Down the Cain Train

Harassment charges are important. But so is so much else.

And so here we are, into the second week of Cain-demonium: the breathless reporting, speculating, and opining about the late-1990s sexual harassment—or is it something more now?—controversy that has come to haunt (or help?) the candidacy of Herman Cain.

Just when it looked like the media had finally tired of the matter, enter Gloria Allred and the biggest break in the story yet: a press conference with Sharon Bialek, the first accuser to go public. Yesterday’s press conference was deemed roundly big and newsworthy, live-blogged by Andrew Sullivan and livestreamed by CNN, Slate, and Politico. And TMZ.

For sure, the allegations against Cain make for a fair and legitimate story, and certainly one that should be reported. Herman Cain is the running for president, and he’s the technical frontrunner—even if many liberal pundits find that status hard to take seriously. Voters have a right to know and to consider this information for themselves.

Yet, while the allegations against Cain are significant, it is irresponsible the extent to which some segments of the political press has allowed them to dominate the political news cycle these past nine days.

Much coverage has had a sort of frenzied, single-minded focus that has come at the cost of coverage of just about everything and everyone else.

Take for example, Politico, which surely helped set this sensational tone when they labeled one of its first stories on the Cain scandal “Bombshell.” Since their initial scoop, the website has published 144 Cain-centric stories, only a handful of them about something other than the harassment allegations.

Thanks to the website we have learned—besides the basics of the charges and the fact that Cain denies them—what Haley Barbour thinks Cain should do, and why Newt Gingrich thinks Cain needs better crisis management, and what Karl Rove thinks of Cain blaming the story on the Perry campaign.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know, instead, what Newt Gingrich—or Herman Cain or any of the other potential nominees—thinks of the Euro crisis? Or potential defense cuts? Or creating jobs?

While it may lead the pack in the Cain race, Politico is not alone. The Washington Post has been all over the story, too, with stories or blog posts numbering in the hundreds. As New York Times reporter Michael Shear wrote in a recent post at The Caucus blog, rightly entitled “The G.O.P Campaign Goes on Unnoticed,” the Times “is seizing the story for all it’s worth.” Reporters like The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza seem to tweet about little else.

We get it, it’s a juicy story that combines the titillation of sex scandal with the humor of candidate who has run his campaign on audacity—a pizza magnate! Crazy viral videos! The Hermanator! It’s a wonderful set-up for jokes about how he will soon have 999 accusers.

This all may be good sport, but it’s not particularly useful. What would be useful, beyond redevoting some attention to the race’s other candidates and its very pressing issues, are more concrete details on Cain’s alleged behavior. Absent that, it’s just a whole lot of noise about the scandal, from which the public can wring relatively little substance for trying to sort out who they want to vote for and why.

The public needs a political press corps that can, at the very least, walk and chew gum at the same time. But what the public has largely gotten these past nine days is a media that has stopped to gawk and gnaw compulsively on a single piece of bubble gum.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.