WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "What the [bleep] is Politico doing?" said the man on the phone. "And how the [bleep] are they getting away with this [bleep]?"
Reporters rival sailors for their proficiency in profanity, and one of the most experienced political journalists in Washington was cussing a blue streak Thursday evening as he railed against the shoddiness of Politico's reporting on the Herman Cain "scandal."
Scare-quotes around the word "scandal" are necessary in that, as of Thursday night, Americans still had only vague suggestions of what it is Cain is accused of having done to women who worked at the National Restaurant Association during his tenure as president of that organization in the late 1990s.
"Five days!" yelled the veteran reporter on the phone. "Five days and what have we got? Nothing! What the [bleep] were they thinking about, running with a piece of [bleep] story like that?"
The excrement to which my friend referred was the 2,100-word article Politico published Sunday, the lead paragraph of which read: "During Herman Cain's tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO."
So far, so good -- this is true, as Cain himself has confirmed, but the shortcomings of Politico's article become obvious to anyone who reads beyond the first paragraph. All of the sources cited for the accusations against Cain were anonymous, and the accusations were described in such general terms that readers were left to wonder, "What exactly did Cain do?"
Despite the dribbling out of "details" this week, we still don't have the names of the accusers or anything like a coherent narrative of what Cain allegedly did. This was shocking to my friend the veteran journalist, who bent my ear for 45 minutes with blistering denunciations of Politico's shoddy reporting. "What have they got? They got nothing," he said, finally managing to speak two consecutive sentences without a cuss word.
After that call ended, I finally got a call-back from Cain's campaign chief of staff, Mark Block. I'd called him hours earlier to get his reaction to a PJM article that seemed to provide some details of the accusations. But long before Block called back, PJM had issued a correction that reduced the big scoop to the revelation that lobbyists like to have parties at a restaurant called Ciao Baby Cucina. And, like my friend the veteran journalist, Block wanted to talk about Politico's shoddy reporting. Block said someone had e-mailed him the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. "I haven't had a chance yet to forward it to the reporter and the editor at Politico, but if they lived up to the code of ethics, they both should resign," the pack-a-day campaign wizard said.
"We're not playing their games anymore," Block said. "The American people are sick and tired of the cesspool in Washington, D.C. We're not responding to any more inquiries, any more questions -- period, end of story."
This morning at breakfast, I picked up The Washington Times and saw Wes Pruden's column, which absolutely nailed it:
Politico, the political daily of liberal pedigree that set the hounds on Mr. Cain, has not said what he is guilty of, or when, or where, or who says so. Innuendo is enough. Politico says it has a half-dozen sources "shedding light on different aspects of the complaints." Once upon a time, a reporter trying to get a story merely "shedding light" on "aspects" past a gruff old city editor would have been thrown down the stairs if the gruff old city editor was having a particularly bad day.
Having spent a decade working in Pruden's newsroom, I can attest that he would have summarily fired anyone who even suggested that his newspaper publish anything as shoddy as what Politico published on Sunday. Throwing the fired employee down the stairs, however, might be considered "harassment."
The other big headline today was in the Washington Post: "Cain rises in Post-ABC poll despite scandal; most Republicans dismiss allegations." Clearly, Block is onto something when he says Americans are sick and tired of the "cesspool" standards of D.C. media -- and even some in the D.C. media are sick and tired of it. The question now is why more reporters aren't beginning to ask questions about Politico? Why aren't the Washington Post and the New York Times and other respectable news organizations investigating how and why Politico dropped this stink bomb of thinly-sourced innuendo in the middle of the Republican presidential primary? Who tipped them, and what kind of agenda are they pursuing?
Who, what, when, where, why and how -- somebody once taught me that these are questions journalists are supposed to ask. And somebody needs to start asking those questions about Politico. Stephen Engleberg's criticism in Pro Publica is a good starting point, but it's only a start.
The question of motive has been raised: Was this attack on Herman Cain done at the behest of his Republican rivals? Or has Cain gotten a rude introduction to Team Obama's Chicago-style methods? Between epithets and obscenities Thursday night, my veteran journalist friend voiced his own suspicion that the White House was behind the Politico story. Cain is "their worst nightmare," he said. "He's the American dream -- they gotta be scared to death of that guy."
And this points back to the real scandal this week, as expressed in a question by Jeff Goldstein at the Protein Wisdom blog: "What did Politico know and when did they know it?"