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Republican presidential candidate and former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain participates in a discussion about his 9-9-9 tax plan at the American Enterprise Institute Oct. 31, 2011 in Washington, DC.
Republican presidential candidate and former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain participates in a discussion about his 9-9-9 tax plan at the American Enterprise Institute Oct. 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media for The Nation as a contributing writer.
Conservative activists and talking heads, taking their cue from Herman Cain's campaign, are dismissing the revelation in Politico that Cain was accused of sexual harassment by two employees when he was president of the National Restaurant Association. Politico gave Cain ten days to respond to queries to their detailed and thoroughly reported article, and he provided only inscrutable answers that verged on an admission:
In a series of comments over the past 10 days, Cain and his campaign repeatedly declined to respond directly about whether he ever faced allegations of sexual harassment at the restaurant association. They have also declined to address questions about specific reporting confirming that there were financial settlements in two cases in which women leveled complaints.... Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon told POLITICO the candidate indicated to campaign officials that he was "vaguely familiar" with the charges and that the restaurant association's general counsel had resolved the matter.
Rather than furnish a compelling argument for himself in the Politico story, since Cain didn't have one to make, he waited for the piece to come out, then went after them with name-calling. As CNN reported, "A statement from Cain's campaign vice president J.D. Gordon did not directly address the allegations and called the report a sign the media 'have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain.... Since Washington establishment critics haven't had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain's ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can." (Coincidentally, Gordon himself sent a public letter in 2009 accusing a Miami Herald reporter of sexual harassment.)
Anyone with half a brain can see this for the dishonest misdirection it is. A report on an unflattering aspect of your personal history is not an "attack." Nor does Politico count as one of Cain's "critics." Politico is a straight newspaper, not a journal of opinion. (Disclosure: I worked there for a year, so I speak from experience.) The article did not attack or criticize Cain. It did not say, "You should not vote for Herman Cain," or "Herman Cain would make a bad president," or even "Herman Cain may be a bad boss for women." It made no value judgments of any kind. It simply reported the facts.
But most conservative media blowhards are echoing Cain's talking points. As partisan hacks who prize their side's victory over truth, they are completely incapable of recognizing that Politico has no anti-Cain agenda. As far as most conservatives are concerned, if a newspaper runs a story that reflects poorly on Cain, it might as well be a Democratic press release.
Rush Limbaugh lumped the Politico piece with another recent article by an objective newspaper that he didn't like—the Washington Post's discovery that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) routinely lied about his parents' immigration from Cuba—as partisan smears of non-white Republicans. "This story appears to me to be a close relative of the hit job that the Washington Post is doing on Marco Rubio," said Limbaugh on his radio program. "And it's not news. This is not a news story. It is gutter partisan politics and it's the politics of minority conservative personal destruction."
On Fox News Ann Coulter said, "This is the second time a conservative black has had outrageous and what appears to be a false allegation of a sexual nature leveled against him by the left, Clarence Thomas being the first." This—unlike the accusations about Cain which we simply do not have enough evidence to assess—actually is a falsehood. The allegations against Cain were not leveled by "the left." They were made by employees of Cain's. They were reported to the public by Politico, which is a newspaper, not "the left." She and host Sean Hannity agreed that it constitutes a "double standard," that liberals accuse conservatives of being racist for criticizing Obama, but themselves criticize Cain. That, of course, is completely irrelevant, since Politico reporters are not professional liberals and the story does not constitute a critique of Cain as such.
What's especially telling about these conservative responses to Politico's scoop is that no one on the right feels the need to even establish their premise that Politico is part of "the left." Politico has no political orientation, and they strive for neutrality in their reporting. You cannot simply assume that an article in Politico comes from a left-leaning or "anti-Cain" perspective. You could attempt to prove that—despite their claims of neutrality—Politico has such a bias, but that would require factual research and intellectually honest analysis, which are anathema to conservative talkers. The Cain campaign, Coulter, Hannity, Limbaugh et al. performed no rigorous, or even half-assed, examination of Politico's coverage of politics in general or Cain in particular to prove that Politico has some liberal or anti-Cain bias. Of course, any such study would disprove their thesis. And to conservatives, if the facts might disprove rather than bolster your view point, there's no reason to discover them.
Needless to say, even if the report came from a liberal publication, that would not make the allegations false nor unimportant. If a conservative publication found out that Barack Obama had been accused of sexual harassment by subordinates, one would hope the liberal media would take the allegations on their own terms rather than simply dismissing them because of the reporters' motives. And certainly, if the report came from a mainstream newspaper, liberals would take it seriously.
I asked Bryan Fischer, a spokesman for the American Family Association and host of a radio show on the American Family Radio network, what he thinks of the Cain allegations. From a family-values perspective, Fischer says the allegations should be taken seriously, but he notes that since the accusers are anonymous it is impossible to assess or interrogate the strength of their accusations. That's a fair point and Fischer deserves credit for—unlike most conservatives—conceding that we do not know for a fact that the allegations are false and, if they are true, they would be troubling.
But Fischer shares the conservative media's view that this incident is evidence that "the left" is going after Cain. "The left hasn't taken [Cain] seriously," says Fischer. "They've mocked him. Now they've realized he's serious and they're going after him like they did Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry." What does Politico have to do with "the left" I asked. "They are a left wing organ," said Fischer. His evidence? "I read them." And as any conservative can tell you, if you read a story revealing unpleasant truths about a Republican, then the publication that ran it is ipso facto part of "the left." As Stephen Colbert says, the truth has a well-known liberal bias.