Herman Cain and the presumption of innocence (or guilt)

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

Every once in a while I say something which I know will be controversial. In this event, I’m never shocked or startled by the reaction. Occasionally, however, I say something and am utterly surprised it turns out to be controversial. That can be a bit unnerving. Such was the case yesterday when I appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” to discuss accusations of sexual harassment made against Herman Cain.

In this instance, my comments we’re intended as pure analysis (not as my opinion on the way things ought to be) yet they sparked one co-panelists to ask, “Are you kidding me?” — and to later to remark, “I can’t even believe I’m hearing this!” (Note: In a later segment, this co-panelist discussed her own decision to go public with her personal experiences of workplace harassment.)

Watch the video, and I’ll comment below…

This may be an unpleasant fact for some, but until there is some tangible evidence of impropriety, the public and the media will treat the allegations against Cain as a he said/she said.

By citing the “stained blue dress” — which, as Howard Kurtz rightly pointed out is a very high burden of proof — I may have given the wrong impression. Perhaps a better example would have been the pictures of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap, aboard the “Monkey Business”? Regardless, my point is that unless or until the public is presented with some sort of tangible evidence — a picture, a receipt, a witness … something! — Cain may be damaged by the allegations, but will likely not be destroyed.

(I also should have also, of course, avoided the “innocent until proven guilty” line — which is far more appropriate for legal matters than for the court of public opinion)

The proper assumption for journalists — it occurs to me — is to say we simply don’t know if Cain is innocent or guilty. This is not to say that one can never come to a conclusion prior to a court decision. I think, for example, most everyone assumes former Penn State coach Gary Sandusky did what he is alleged to have done. But Cain’s situation is entirely different. And in such situations, it is prudent to treat both sides with respect. But it is fair to be skeptical of both sides. What one should not do, however, is to simply assume Cain is guilty.

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