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.)