We Are All Gossips Now. Let's Start Acting Like It

For the past week, American's finest news institutions—those self-identified defenders of journalistic propriety against the teeming online hordes—have been tripping over themselves to publish vague, contextless, detail-free, anonymous accusations about the sex life of presidential candidate. Hey, that's our job!

There's nothing particularly wrong with the press frenzy surrounding the sexual harassment charges against Herman Cain. The Politico story that launched things on Sunday was maddeningly thin on details, as Jack Shafer and others have pointed out, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a story rattling around in there somewhere. Sexxxy political scandals are a gas, and we love to see Cain, who is an idiot, put through the wringer.

But wringing thus far has yielded precious few details, and the folks doing the wringing are the same people who usually turn up their noses at the sort of half-baked accusations they've been slinging. To date, for instance, all we know of the allegations—allegations—against Cain is that he's accused of inviting a staffer up to his hotel room (she apparently agreed and regretted it, though no one has reported what transpired there), and that he compared a staffer's height to that of his wife.

The rest of it is gauzy, murky stuff. We know the National Restaurant Association, which Cain ran, paid severance to two women, but we don't know why. He made a woman "deeply uncomfortable," the Times says. How? By doing what, precisely? No say. A "third former employee" has come forward to exclusively tell the Associated Press that Cain made "sexually suggestive remarks or gestures" toward her during her time at the NRA. What sexually suggestive remarks or gestures? Again, the AP doesn't say. (It says in general terms that Cain told her that she was attractive, and that he invited her to his room, but not what was sexually suggestive about those remarks.) Pajamas Media tells us that after a night of drinking, "Cain allegedly took [a staffer] by taxi to his apartment, where she spent the night and woke up." What happened before she woke up, and before she fell asleep, we are left to guess.

Such a swirling dust-devil of half-truths and anonymous accusations is the stuff of tabloids and gossip web sites. For places like the Associated Press and the Times, faceless accusations of unspecified misconduct usually represent the starting point for reporting, not the stories themselves. People can be wrong! When Iowa radio host Steve Deace claimed publicly that Cain was "compromised in his private life" because of "inappropriate and awkward" comments he'd made to female radio staffers during a visit to Deace's studio, he declined to elaborate further. But the implication was clear: Cain was grab-assing his way across Iowa, and ABC News, the Washington Post, and others breathlessly passed on the vague claims as "adding to the controversy" surrounding Cain.

It turns out that the "inappropriate" comments weren't sexual, they were at worst run-of-the-mill chauvinism: He'd asked a female reporter for get him some tea. Maybe he thought she was an intern. Or maybe he thinks he can order ladies to prepare his beverages. Either way, it's not quite as bad as the leering, sexually suggestive stuff that was implied.

We Are All Gossips Now. Let's Start Acting Like It

All of which is fine. Gossip has a place. Right here, for a start. Anonymous accusations have a place. And details or no, the stories surrounding Cain all week were having an impact on the race and were legitimate targets of coverage. But it would be nice if they weren't being covered by the same people who are usually decrying the decline in journalistic standards and posing as the last honorable reporters.

You can be "the gold standard of newsgathering and reporting throughout the world," as the AP self-righteously claims to be as it dismisses bloggers as pajama-clad parasites, or you can report that some lady thinks Cain is a sex creep for unspecified reasons. You can't do both. You can either be a "toilet trained" grown-up, as one noted shithead once put it, or you can accuse a presidential candidate of sexual misdeeds without having one earthly idea as to what those misdeeds, precisely, consisted of. You can't do both.

No newspaper that actually lived up to the ideal of journalistic professionalism that the AP, Times, Post, etc. claim for themselves would publish anonymously sourced stories claiming unspecified sexual misconduct. Hopefully from now on they will drop the sanctimony and just give us the sex.

[Image via Getty]