Beauty Shop: Role Of Media In GOP Primary Race

Sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain are still dominating headlines, but many political commentators are calling it a distraction. In this week's Beauty Shop, host Michel Martin hears from a panel of politically savvy women who weigh in on this and other political news.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for a visit to the Beauty Shop. That's where we go to get a fresh look at some of the week's news.

Today, we thought we'd take another look at the Republican presidential candidates and the issues that several of their campaigns have been raising about the role of the media in the primary.

We also want to talk about Herman Cain's ongoing stumbles and also the sexual harassment charges that he and his supporters call a distraction. One of our guests says if sexual harassment affects as many women as we think it does, why isn't it important?

Joining us to talk about all this, Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. That's an independent right of center think tank.

Also with us, Melinda Henneberger. She's a political writer at the Washington Post. She wrote that piece we want to talk about. She is expected to lead the paper's forthcoming women's blog.

And Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief of TheWiseLatinaClub.com. And with us from Detroit, Rochelle Riley, columnist for the Detroit Free Press and an author.

Welcome to everybody. Thanks for joining us.

MICHELLE BERNARD: Thanks for having us.

MELINDA HENNEBERGER: Thank you.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks for having us, Michel.

ROCHELLE RILEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to start with that story about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. I think most people know he's been on the defensive about allegations of sexual harassment dating to his tenure at the National Restaurant Association. He denies it. His wife made a rare public appearance to support him, but I want to play a short clip from earlier this week when CNBC host, Maria Bartiromo, tried to bring it up at last Wednesday's GOP candidates' debate. Listen.

MARIA BARTIROMO: In recent days, we have learned that four different women have accused you of inappropriate behavior. Here, we're focusing on character and on judgment. You've been a CEO.

HERMAN CAIN: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

BARTIROMO: You know that shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues. Why should the American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?

CAIN: The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.

MARTIN: Now, what you didn't hear there is the cheers that attended his answer. We're not editorializing. We're just trying to save time for people who are here. So, Melinda, you wrote this piece saying that this is being talked about as if this is an exotic rarely glimpsed phenomenon, difficult to distinguish and not worth the effort. And then you went and interviewed a number of women from a lot of different backgrounds, work in a lot of different workplaces. What did they say about that?

HENNEBERGER: Well, I asked some of the women who are going to be contributing to this blog we're going to be launching at the Post to just - I thought, you know, just to see how common this experience is for women of having been sexually harassed in the workplace. Let's go out today and, I said, the first few women you see on the street in line for coffee at the post office, people you don't know, so in other words, you're asking people this very uncomfortable, way out of context question. Hi, I'm writing about this. Have you ever been sexually harassed?

And yet, you know, of 23 women they ran into and asked this question in eight different cities, 16 said, yes, and the other seven - the no's were just as interesting, like this one young woman, a nanny who was mailing her wedding invitations when I was standing behind her in line in the post office. I said, you know, have you ever been sexually harassed at work? She said, well, no. I'm a nanny. She said, well, my boss does like to watch me sleep. So...

MARTIN: Oh.

HENNEBERGER: So, you know, this is quite a universal experience and I find it so telling that the way we talk about it is these candidates and, even in the media, talk about it like, well, should we be focusing on this or should we be focusing on real issues, on substance, on stuff that's important?

MARTIN: And you're arguing is, if it's that pervasive, why isn't it an issue?

HENNEBERGER: Right.

MARTIN: Well, what did you come up with? Did you come up with a theory about it? And, Michelle, of course you know I'm going to ask you, as well.

HENNEBERGER: About why we're...

MARTIN: Why is it that we don't act like this is a serious issue or...

HENNEBERGER: I think we obviously need to talk about it more if this is considered some frivolous and, as I say, rarely seen thing that, you know, is still to be confused - I mean, like we heard Mike Huckabee say, oh, the women who I see at the Popeye's chicken who call me darling and sweetie - I guess they're harassing me. Ha, ha, ha. That's not what we're talking about and so we obviously need to have this conversation on a national level and let people know that, you know, we're not between what sexual harassment is and when someone says, hey, nice dress.

MARTIN: Just to add some numbers here, there's a new poll out in the Washington Post, and conducted jointly with ABC News, that said nearly two-thirds of Americans say sexual harassment is a problem in this country and about a quarter of women report having been harassed at work.

But Michelle, here's the question I have for you. It really is the narrower question of whether this is something that should be discussed as part of a political campaign. And why do you think that those people booed Maria Bartiromo for bringing it up?

BERNARD: You know, it's interesting. I've been trying to figure out - well, let me go to the question of why people booed her. I can't figure it out. I really honestly cannot understand it. And if you speak to women who consider themselves left of center feminists or right of center feminists, I think unequivocally what you hear is that sometimes the first reaction is, I don't want to be considered a victim. Second reaction might be, if I discuss this publicly, people will not take me seriously because they will think I am not a woman of substance.

However, if you talk to women who have been the subject of sexual harassment, they will tell you that it really is an issue of character, it is an issue of morality. If you talk to, let's say, males who might be sexually harassing females and you ask them how would you feel if someone said what you said or did what you did to your daughter or to your wife, then you find out, oh, this is a really serious problem. This is a problem of character. And so there seems to be some sort of cognitive dissonance between what we consider to be really important in politics and what we consider to be victimhood or something that should not be taken seriously.

And quite honestly, I - last week I was actually taken aback when I first heard the allegations and I saw Gloria Allred and I thought, oh god, why do we have to have this discussion. I'm literally somebody who fell right into that camp of here we go with women as victims. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought this is not a question of victimhood, this is a question of women being able to stand up for what is right and what is wrong in the workplace and it should be a part of the political discourse. Do we really want someone to be the Republican nominee or the next president of the United States who quite honestly might be someone who engages in sexual harassment?

MARTIN: Let me just clarify for people, Ms. Bernard is not a declared supporter of any candidate. Her think tank does lean right, center-right, but you are an independent and you are not endorsing a candidate, for those who...

BERNARD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...want to ask that question. Rochelle, I'm going to ask you the question. Wait, I want to hear from you and Viviana on this as well. So why do you think, though, I'm particularly interested in the narrower question of whether this is something to be part of the political conversation.

RILEY: I think that everything is a part of the political conversation when you're talking about electing the leader of the free world. I think what we're looking at is this challenge of where things fit and what the priorities are. I can tell you that debate that was held at Oakland University just north of Detroit was before an audience of a lot of supporters of conservative values, a lot of students, and a lot of people, quite frankly, if you talk to the students, who don't believe the women who were involved. So in addition to the other things that Michelle just eloquently outlined, you've got to deal with the issue of credibility when you're talking about people who are raising concerns. I don't think there is a statue of limitations on sexual harassment any more than there should be a statute of limitations on rape. But I think when you wait a long time to say that something bothered you, people question it. So yes, of course, it's a vital and important issue, but if the country is in the dumpster and people don't have jobs, is it what they want to talk about first? Not everybody.

MARTIN: Viviana?

HURTADO: I don't know if people ever really want to talk about something like this. And that's why it's important that we talk about this in this, you know, around this political election, because these are going to be our leaders and we've got to look to them not just to talk about it, but action, and I think that's where I would go. I wrote an article in Latina magazine about sexual harassment and I asked some women if they'd ever been harassed and they said yes, on multiple occasions in different contexts, whether it was graduate school, whether it was an internship, whether it was work.

What was really interesting in my research is that as I looked, it's pretty well documented, it's very well legislated, what it is that constitutes sexual harassment and what you can do to identify it and to go forward. But this is the deal: Between what's on the books, people are talking about it. Women aren't talking about it like Michelle said, because they're worried that they won't be taken seriously because they're afraid of the repercussions that they might be having at work as far as advancement is concerned. And so at some point we're going to do need to talk about it, but very quickly go to action, and we've got laws on the books that will be able to help this national discussion be taken very seriously.

MARTIN: It'll be interesting to see whether this comes up again when the blog is launched. Melinda, you've got to keep us posted on that.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a visit to the Beauty Shop. We're looking for a fresh cut on the current events. Joining us are journalists and thought leaders Michelle Bernard, Melinda Henneberger, Viviana Hurtado and Rochelle Riley. Okay, Michelle, I got to go back to Herman Cain. I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And he lost his train of thought during a recent meeting with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, and he was asked if he agreed with President Obama on Libya. It was a very simple question and the tape is widely available if folks want to see the whole exchange for themselves. We're only going to play a short - about half of it. But here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOTAPE)

CAIN: President Obama supported the uprising, correct? President Obama called for the removal of Gadhafi. Just want to make sure we're talking about the same thing before I say yes, I agree, or no, I didn't agree. I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reasons. No, that's a different one.

MARTIN: Okay Michelle, so people are calling this his brain freeze moment, like a Rick Perry moment, like Texas Governor Perry suffered at last week's debate when he couldn't remember the third agency that he says he wanted to cut, that was Rick Perry. What's up? What's going on here?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BERNARD: Wow.

MARTIN: Tired?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BERNARD: You know, whether he is tired or not - and again, I say this completely as somebody that does not have a stake, you know, in this. I'm not supporting anyone. I say this completely independent. This is an enormous problem. We talk about the United States being the leader of the free world. We talk about all of the issues that we have with regard to domestic and foreign policy, with foreign policy being a very significant and important part of our daily lives, particularly since 9/11. Brain freeze or not, I believe that nine out of 10 Americans that that you speak to that are going to vote in the next election want to know that the president of the United States knows what Libya is, knows what the different political parties' stances have been in regard to foreign policy and intervention, and this is a huge problem for Herman Cain.

MARTIN: You know, Viviana, I was curious because as a blogger, you know, you're used to having to react to things quickly, and one of the things that caught a lot of people's attention is how quickly this went viral. On the other hand, you can make an argument that it'll go away just as quickly. What's your take on it? Would you say okay, that was yesterday.

HURTADO: I think it's important to look at these incidences cumulatively and, you know, you just don't have a brain freeze or that, you know, iconic oops moment that Herman Cain had, but you had that in the context of serious allegations of sexual harassment. And then just doing some things - you know, he is ultimately the Hermanator and doing some things that just kind of at best make you raise your eyebrows or just think oh my goodness, if this goes any further I guess President Obama could very well have the election.

The thing about it is I think if you look at it cumulatively speaking, Herman Cain's numbers are suffering in the polls and I think Republican primary voters are not just thinking is this person ready for prime time, but am I going to vote somebody who – am I going to vote for somebody who is going to go up against President Obama and basically give President Obama the election? And here's another thing - are we going to elect somebody who is not going to be able to go toe to toe with some of the most pressing issues that are facing the world?

MARTIN: Rochelle, what do you think? Is this major damage or just another day?

RILEY: I think that we have been going down the yellow brick road with Herman Cain because he's a joy for the media, he's entertaining for the pundits, and people were looking for something different. But what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did was pull the curtain back and reveal that this really is a guy who does not know enough for the job. And even having said that, I frighteningly say, I don't know that this will be enough.

MARTIN: Speaking of this point that Rochelle just made about a joy for the media, very interesting story. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claimed that she's a target of bias during the latest debate and didn't get the airtime she deserved. She says that her campaign was accidentally CC'd on a CBS email saying that Bachmann was, quote, "nearly off the charts," unquote, and shouldn't get a lot of questions. And she's raising the question of whether is the media picking winners and losers here. When you think about that?

RILEY: Not enough, Michel. I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RILEY: We don't have that power. No, I was out with Michele Bachmann recently and I can understand her frustration because, I mean, look, compared to what we were just talking about with Herman Cain, there's Michele Bachmann working hard every day, doing her homework, showing up knowing the answers, and then you have Herman Cain, who did not have an oops or brain freeze. He really, in his own words, has all the stuff twirling around in his brain and can't keep it straight. I mean he wants to have it both ways by saying let's talk about policy, and when asked about policy thinks it's unfair.

MARTIN: But the question...

RILEY: Michele Bachmann, you know...

MARTIN: But the question is, should they ask everybody the same question? I guess I'm curious about this because I've been on both sides of this as a debate panelist or as a campaign forum panelist.

RILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: One of the panels that I participated in in 2008, we asked, it was a Democratic debate, there were 10 candidates, we asked everybody the same question. Everybody got to answer. Some people criticized us. They said that's boring and a poor use of our time.

RILEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So I don't know. I don't know. Rochelle, do you...

RILEY: Here's the issue, I think, you know, welcome to Washington, the real world of politics for Michele Bachmann. If you are among the last, at the bottom of the totem pole in the polls, and other people are interesting, then other people are going to get the airtime and other people are going to get the questions. Quite frankly, I felt like I did hear a lot from her in the last two Republican debates and still didn't really care. So I don't know that what she's feeling is that she's not being treated fairly or that when she sees the news reports on other side that her best answers didn't get any type of air time.

MARTIN: Okay. So, Michelle, last word to you.

BERNARD: Just very quickly, I was going to say after the Iowa caucuses she was getting most of the questions and there was Rick Santorum saying hey, I'm here, ask me a question. This is just the reality of the political world that we live in. Personally I think everyone should get the same number of questions but it is what it is. she, maybe what she is feeling is her decline in the polls.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, please don't anyone else send me an email saying it wasn't fair because you didn't get the same amount of time. I'm sorry, I'm doing the best I can here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right. Viviana, you have 20 seconds. Was it fair or unfair?

HURTADO: Look, it may be unfair but the thing about it is I don't hear her complaining when she says incendiary things about illegal immigration and gets a lot of play in conservative radio. Things for example, like we need to quote/unquote, stop an anchor baby program, or I won't help children of illegal immigrants. That gets incredible play in conservative media and she's not complaining about that. You can't have it both ways. And as the lady said, it's politics, it's Washington.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, to be continued. Thank you all so much. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief at thewiselatinaclub.com. Melinda Henneberger is political writer at the Washington Post. She's going to anchor, host, a forthcoming women's blog. Hope you'll come back and tell us more about it.

HENNEBERGER: Love to.

MARTIN: Also with us, Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. They were all here with us in Washington, D.C. Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and author of "Raising a Parent: Lessons My Daughter Taught Me While We Grew Up Together." She joined us from Detroit. Ladies, thank you all.

RILEY: Thank you.

HURTADO: Thank you.

HENNEBERGER: Thank you.

BERNARD: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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