Why did journalists act as a pack in withholding names of Herman Cain’s accusers?

Until today, media covering allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have universally withheld the identities of the women, who did not voluntarily come forward.

Then today, The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad publication, revealed the identity of one woman, in a flattering article that gives credibility to her claims.

That prompted Business Insider and the Daily Caller to follow suit. Shortly after that, NPR confirmed with Karen Kraushaar that she is “woman A,” but she initially declined to say anything more.

Kraushaar spoke with The New York Times Tuesday evening.

She said she did not know whether or how she might tell more of her story but said that she had been warming “to the idea of a joint press conference where all of the women would be together with our attorneys and all of this evidence would consider together.”

Since then, attorneys for the women have been in touch and plans for a joint appearance are progressing.

It’s apparent that Kraushaar’s name was widely known by journalists, but not reported.

This lock-step withholding, then revealing, of information is evidence of a lack of leadership among the ranks of leading news organizations.

There isn’t a journalistic reason to conceal the names of these women. Journalists are not bound by non-disclosure agreements that often accompany legal settlements. These women are victims of sexual harassment, not sexual assault. There is no generally accepted school of thought that guides journalists to protect individual privacy in cases like this.

When it comes to rape, which is a felony, there is well-documented research that indicates victims would be even less likely to report attacks to police, if they knew their names would be published. That’s why most newsrooms have policies that discourage publishing the names of rape victims. Sexual harassment is not rape, though certainly it may be humiliating and embarrassing to be the victim of sexual harassment.

Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, addresses a news conference at the Friars Club, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, in New York. Bialek accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997. She says she wants to provide “a face and a voice” to support other accusers who have so far remained anonymous. (Richard Drew/AP)

The newsrooms that originally broke the story, Politico and The New York Times, may have promised the women anonymity in exchange for their interviews. That makes sense.

But other newsrooms, particularly those with the capacity to discover the names of the women, acted in inexplicable unison until today. And they continue even now, reporting only the name that was originally revealed by The Daily, instead of divulging the names of all the women involved.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out in his column last week that many news organizations have staked out the house of one woman who received a settlement. And one TV executive told Calderone, “There’s no journalistic reason not to name them … I think it comes down to a very simple equation: If you name them, the likelihood of your news organization interviewing them probably goes down to zero.”

Many newsrooms may share the hope that if they preserve the women’s anonymity, then maybe those women will grant a personal interview.

In other words, those newsrooms are gambling on the remote chance of getting an exclusive, and sacrificing their duty to give their audience all the relevant information.

The uniformity among news organizations on this particular decision is baffling, given the increasing competition to deliver news to the consumer.

Critics will likely presume a journalism cabal, making decisions together in some back room. It’s not that. Instead, it’s a lack of confidence and leadership in newsrooms. It’s an inability to employ a process that puts the needs of the audience before the needs of the newsroom. It’s the tendency to spend too much time comparing oneself to the competition, and not enough time asking if the work is serving the truth.

I talked about when and why to name accusers in a live chat with Reuters’ Jack Shafer. You can replay the chat here:

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FCWMHUISWZOPXYO2ECA55FIREE M Davis

    Journalists won’t get out in front on national political stories because it will damage their access to the campaigns. In the name of access HUGE amounts of relevant news goes unreported.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_WX4KE45NFIHEKRRISSATIK4SKI Chris

    Its funny to see all these radical conservatives go from one candidate, to another candidate. I be HC does not even win a primary.
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  • http://www.rwordplay.com rwordplay

    An interesting question, although not inspired by an interesting story. 

    The simple answer is journalists hunt in packs. One might also answer that journalists rarely decide such issues, editors do, often after consulting with their in-house counsels. And, one house counsel’s advice is rarely more illuminating than another’s.

    More to the point, this is a non-story, where the facts don’t quite add up, and where at least two of the characters involved seem to have trouble reciting their own stories, let alone motives. Of more interest to me is that no story that I’ve seen or heard makes mention of former President Clinton. This has some relevance since at the time of these alleged incidents, Mr. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on charges related to lies he told, and justice he obstructed, from a case that any feminist would describe as sexual harassment. I am curious why no journalists, from any reputable media organization, reporting on Mr. Cain’s troubles have bothered to put them in the context of times they were said to take place, a time when the papers were junked-up with numerous charges of harassment and worse leveled against the former President by Lewinsky, Jones, et al. I would think the profession would be embarrassed by this collective and willful amnesia. 

  • Anonymous

    “These women are victims of sexual harassment, not sexual assault.”  Hmm. Glad the author determined for us who are “victims” at this early point. We can drop that silly, search for facts thing and get right to the chase.

  • RON WILLISON

    Jack. There is merit to your thought processes. We are in an election cycle. Politics have been known to be ruthless. Smear’s work history shows that. I’m not a Cain fan. That said. Guilt can not be assumed. Public media trials do more harm than good to our country than can be calculated.