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The Herman Cain Media Storm: He Said, She Said Over What She Says He Said (and Did)

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It was I Love the ’90s Day in TV news Monday. First, there was a dramatic press conference featuring Gloria Allred and an explosive charge of sexual harassment against a political figure. Scant hours later, the news networks broke away for the verdict from Los Angeles in a celebrity-death trial. The whole scene was so nostalgic, I half-expected find out that Claire Danes and Tim Allen have TV shows again. Oh, wait.

The guilty verdict against Dr. Conrad Murray in the Michael Jackson involuntary manslaughter trial commanded the stage briefly–all three major broadcast networks interrupted programming for it. But it’s the allegations against Herman Cain, salacious and endlessly debatable, that have the potential to occupy the media for days, or until Cain is no longer the Republican frontrunner, whichever comes first.

The bizarre news day began in a comedians’ club and ended on a late-night comedy show. Cain’s accuser, Sharon Bialek, spoke at the New York Friars’ Club, in a press conference preceded by a Howard Stern spokesman, and gave a detailed story of Cain asking sex as a quid pro quo for helping her find a job: meeting her in a hotel bar, “upgrading” her to a palatial suite, taking her for a drive, putting his hand up her skirt and pushing her head towards his crotch. Whatever the circus-like atmosphere of the event–which Allred did not help by venturing a forced zinger about Cain’s “stimulus package”–it was about more than mere flirting or infidelity, if true.

(MORE: Sharon Bialek: The Fourth Herman Cain Accuser Has a Name and Face)

If true being the operative words. And here’s where things get difficult for the journalists and commentators covering the stream of Cain sex-harassment reports. The facts are unknowable, unless someone turns up surveillance videotape from 1997. And yet to ignore the pattern would be willfully dense. Four different accusers came forth at different points in time; to exonerate Cain, not only would they all have to be making false allegations, but to have done so with different motives. (Presumably women did not charge harassment against him in the ’90s to sabotage a Presidential run a decade and a half later.)

No one knows what happened–and yet. At times it became almost comical how news commentators would remember to tack on an “Allegedly!” after a recitation of the charges against Cain, like kids remembering to cross their fingers for good luck.

Which leaves us with one of the most uncomfortable and self-perpetuating of all news scenarios: a public standoff between two figures, one of whom is telling a bald-faced lie. Unable to resolve it, commentators turned to the almost-as-unknowable: guessing how Republican voters will take the news.

Coming after a week in which pundits roundly predicted that Cain would collapse under harassment allegations–only to see most of his poll numbers hold steady or rise–pundits were, well, once again predicting that Cain’s campaign would collapse. On Fox News, Brit Hume said it was “almost impossible” for Cain to survive the new charges.

And on MSNBC, Martin Bashir’s panel debated how hurtful it would be to Cain that Bialek is–well, there’s no way to put this delicately–a white woman, the insulting assumption being that GOP primary voters, being Republicans, are of course racists. Democratic strategist Karen Finney thought it might be a problem, and author (and time.com contributor) Toure went farther: “We’re going to see how open the GOP is to their new black friend when they find out that he’s harassing blonde women as opposed to black women.” All of which would seem to charge Cain supporters en masse with double bigotry: either they disregard another woman’s allegations and prove themselves to be huge sexists, or they finally drop their support for Cain and prove themselves to be huge racists.

Monday night, in an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, Bialek stayed on message: she was telling the truth, and she wanted nothing more from Cain than for him to tell the truth. Bialek (reportedly a Republican) didn’t take the bait when Morgan asked if she felt Cain should drop out of the race, but did say, “I don’t think we can have anyone in the White House who is unable to tell the truth.”

Cain, meanwhile, turned up at midnight on Jimmy Kimmel, who ended up booking (last week) what would turn out to be the day’s big get. It seemed fitting, in a way, that the former host of The Man Show, Juggy Girls on trampolines and all, should get land the day’s big sex-harassment interview. (The ’90s really are back!) Kimmel introduced Cain as as a “castoff from Dancing with the Stars,” then added, “Sorry, that’s a joke from next year.”

It was not a probing, detailed, hard-news interview, and yet–given that from all evidence Cain would have refused such questions anyway–it was more interesting to see how Cain used the late-night platform to present himself. He was dismissive of the former employees who raised–in his words “fabricated”–charges: “at least it wasn’t one of the many that have the first name ‘Anonymous,’ so now this one actually had a name and a face.”

OK, a hard-news interviewer might have pointed out that these “anonymous” accusers were bound by non-disclosure agreements negotiated with his former employer. On the other hand, Kimmel was able to go where, say, Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t: “You said, ‘When people get on the Cain train, they don’t get off.’ Do you regret that choice of words?”

It was an odd appearance for a prominent candidate in the middle of a scandal. On the one hand, Cain doubled down on his absolute denial of the charges; it seems impossible at this point that he could reverse course and make some Arnold Schwarzenegger-like admission of past “inappropriate” behavior. On the other hand, Cain (who has gotten testy at press appearances) hardly had the flop-sweat appearance of a candidate being roasted in the media: he smiled, he cracked wise, he laughed along with Kimmel’s jokes at his expense. Weirdly, he seemed to be having a grand time.

But Cain’s biggest statement on Kimmel was that–he was going to say more about it all later, in “a press conference tomorrow to set the record straight.” A lot of people have been wrong making predictions concerning Herman Cain lately, but I’m going to venture one guess: whatever he says at his conference today, the ’90s are not going away any time soon.