On Cain Story, Politico Had Grounds to Publish

Despite the story's flaws

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.”

Maybe I’m a careless reader or too quick to judgment, but even without the gory details, I thought the article offered a fair sense of the shape of Cain’s behavior. Besides those mysterious “physical gestures,” there were “conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature” and an “unwanted sexual advance” at a hotel where association staff were gathered.

Vague as it may be, this does tell us what Cain isn’t being accused of, which includes some of the most offensive actions that fall under the category of sexual harassment: quid pro quos, sexual demands or ultimatums, groping and other physically aggressive behavior that falls short of assault.

So how are we to know seriously to view the allegations? Here, I think the behavior of the women is at least as telling as specific details about what Cain said, how he gestured, or how large the pay-outs were. Few women relish the prospect of lodging a sexual harassment case against their boss. Few would want to look for a new job after leaving under those circumstances, settlement in hand or no. What Politico’s story tells us is that Cain’s conduct was sufficient for not one but two women to choose that course of action.

That, to my mind, also addresses a criticism Shafer raised in a phone conversation: if the allegations are unfounded, “it’s incredibly difficult for Herman Cain to get his good name back.” The press should of course be mindful of such concerns, especially when the accusers are not on the record. (And for that reason this bit of piling on from the AP, reporting anonymous, uncorroborated allegations from a third woman who never lodged a formal complaint, is journalistically dubious. Even worse has been the media’s abetting of one talk show host’s calculatedly unspecified and apparently overstated complaints about Cain’s behavior, skewered here by Gawker’s John Cook.) But when two female subordinates leave a workplace with confidential settlements after complaining about their male boss’s behavior, and he refuses to address the issue when asked about it, that should tarnish his name a bit. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s legally culpable. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s unfit for office. But, at a minimum, it tells us that a couple of his employees were upset enough about his behavior to proceed down what can be a pretty unpleasant path, and see that path to its conclusion. And that’s something.

This sort of heuristic is all the more useful in stories like this one, where more detail will not necessarily lead to more clarity or consensus about what happened. The line between what’s simply uncouth and what’s offensive or even illegal is famously subject to dispute and sometimes dependent on context that can be understood only by the participants, no matter how complete the journalistic retelling. Meanwhile, the meaning of the settlements’ size turns out to be ambiguous, even with a specific dollar figure attached. Shafer, in a chat at the Poynter site and in conversation with me, said that a settlement of $35,000 in one of the cases could indicate a weak claim, given the potential cost of litigation. But Engelberg, in an e-mail to me, wrote that the association’s decision to pay the woman a year’s salary “makes it clear that this was more than a nuisance case.” (While we’re trying to divine meaning from these numbers, I’m not convinced of Shafer’s point that the dollar figure “indicates that the accuser’s case wasn’t so great that she could have won more at trial.” It might indicate that, or it might indicate that she didn’t want to deal with the public, time-consuming aspects of a trial any more than the restaurant association did.)

Of course, Politico’s article would have been better with more specifics. But if the core bit of news, about the allegations and the settlements, was all Politico could pin down, it was still worth reporting. Engelberg wrote to me that the non-disclosure agreements were not an “insurmountable barrier” to unearthing more details prior to publication, and that some of the information that has since come to light, like the size of the settlements, “would have been immensely helpful to readers of the first story.” Like Shafer, he pointed to The Washington Post’s coverage of the Bob Packwood scandal, which landed with a devastating, incontrovertible wallop. And he suggested that the lack of specifics may explain why many Republican voters appear to be brushing the story aside.

But the fact that further details have come out in the wake of Politico’s reporting doesn’t prove those details could have been uncovered prior to the first story’s publication. On this point, Politico’s Harris had a persuasive reply. “Do [Shafer and Engelberg] hold their views strongly enough that they would have been prepared to stop newsworthy information about a presidential candidate from going into the public domain because only some questions, and not all, were answered?” he wrote via e-mail. “The main issue in their critiques is whether the right call is to share no newsworthy information until we can answer all the questions that a curious person might have. In my experience, that is just not how reporting works—answers come out over time, by returning over and over to important questions with more reporting and more stories.”

Stretched too far, this defense of “iterative” reporting can be used to excuse errors or trafficking in rumor. But that’s not the case here. Politico reported what it knew. Though the presentation of the story could have—and should have—been fairer to Cain on a couple points, what it reported has held up. And what it reported was, on its own, newsworthy.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , , ,