Jack Shafer and Stephen Engelberg haven’t changed their minds: Politico, they still believe, made a journalistic error when it decided a week ago to publish its reporting on allegations of sexual harassment against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain stemming from his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association during the late 1990s.
Shafer, the estimable press critic now at Reuters, and Engelberg, managing editor of the muckraking newsroom ProPublica, were the most prominent journalistic voices arguing that the story wasn’t ready to see the light of day. And while a number of new details have come to light since last Sunday evening, when Politico first published its reporting—including the size of the settlements received by two female accusers upon leaving the trade association, somewhat more specific accounts of what Cain is alleged to have done, and Cain’s own stumbling response to the news—both said late this week that their views hadn’t changed.
Shafer and Engelberg offer the right criticisms of the article, and I agree that Politico’s original story could have been improved. But after corresponding with each of them—and also with John Harris, Politico’s editor-in-chief—over the last couple days, I think this is a case where Politico’s critics have the weaker end of the argument.
What are the criticisms? Engelberg notes that Politico’s sources weren’t on the record, that the story doesn’t pin down “what exactly was said or done by Cain”—the description of his alleged actions includes the frustratingly opaque phrase “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”—and also that the description of the settlements as “in the five-figure range” leaves open the possibility that Cain’s employers were trying to expeditiously resolve weak claims (at the low end) or feared substantial legal liability (at the high end). Shafer echoes these concerns (see also here) and adds that the credibility of the unspecified “documentation” Politico claims to have seen outlining some of the allegations hinges on what that document actually is: “Transcripts? Internal HR filings? A letter of accusation? A tape-recording? A letter from the lawyers for the accusers petitioning for a cash settlement from the National Restaurant Association?”
These are good points, and when I asked Harris about the vague description of Cain’s actions, the nature of the documentation, and the potential ambiguity regarding the size of the settlements, he didn’t really address them. (“As you can appreciate, there is a lot I can’t discuss in detail on this subject because of the sensitivity of this story’s subject matter and our sourcing obligations,” he wrote via email.) At the least, Politico should have provided some of the context given by this CNN article cited by Shafer, about what the size of a settlement might indicate. And if, due to sourcing restrictions, it really couldn’t say whether the “documentation” was created by Cain’s accusers or his employers, it probably should not have mentioned it—on the grounds that, to borrow a lawyer’s term, its value was more prejudicial than probative.
So why do I side with Politico’s decision to publish? Because the corroborated information that it did have—two female subordinates accused a presidential candidate of improper behavior, and those allegations prompted a response that involved monetary settlements, non-disclosure agreements, and their departure from their jobs—is newsworthy on its own. It doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know. But it tells us something about his conduct, and it was worth reporting.
In his criticism, Engelberg has pushed hard on the idea that without more specific details, readers could not judge just how bad Cain’s behavior was. It’s not the reporter’s job to figure out whether Cain’s conduct met the legal standard for sexual harassment, he wrote over e-mail, “but you can provide enough information to help readers make common sense judgments about whether this is the sort of behavior they could accept in a presidential candidate. To do that, you need to know the basic facts.”