Herman Cain's nightmare began two weeks ago when the webzine Politico reported two women had accused him of sexual misconduct when he was president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
The story was thin. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal summarized it this way: "Anonymous sources told Politico that unnamed women alleged that Cain said unspecified things."
It triggered a media feeding frenzy anyway. ABC, NBC and CBS reported on the Cain "scandal" 84 times in the first week, according to Scott Whitlock of the Media Research Center.
This contrasts with zero, the number of times in 2008 ABC, NBC and CBS mentioned allegations of sexual misconduct by former Sen. John Edwards when he was running for president that year.
And it contrasts with four, the number of stories the broadcast networks ran in the week after Juanita Broaddrick said she'd been raped by President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Edwards fathered a child out of wedlock while his wife was dying of cancer. Mr. Cain, according to Politico, "had conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature."
Journalists who covered the Edwards campaign had inklings about the affair, but chose "to stay away from it," Mark Halperin of Time magazine said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
"The standard of proof in this kind of intimate behavior is and should be very high," Michael Orestes, AP's managing editor for U.S. news, said then.
That standard hasn't been applied to Mr. Cain.
Mr. Cain's primary accusers received "five figure" settlements from the National Restaurant Association when Mr. Cain led the organization, Politico reported. But those amounts lend credence to Mr. Cain's assertion he did nothing wrong, said Kurt Schlichter, a trial lawyer who represents businesses in civil litigation.
"Lawsuits are so expensive to defend it makes good business sense to settle even the most frivolous cases," he said. "It's hard to get even the silliest charges tossed out, and even then it often costs upwards of six figures to do so."
Despite the media onslaught, Mr. Cain's poll numbers actually improved. It appeared he might survive the scandal.
But on Monday Sharon Bialek said Mr. Cain groped her when she sought his help in finding another job after she'd been fired by the restaurant association's education foundation in Chicago. And then one of the first two accusers was identified. Mr. Cain is a "monster," said Karen Krausharr, 55.
When Gennifer Flowers, then Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Ms. Broaddrick accused Mr. Clinton of sexual indiscretions, journalists expressed concern about their credibility. Few have done so with regard to Mr. Cain's accusers.
More should. Ms. Bialek rarely has held a job for more than two years, has filed for bankruptcy twice and has made accusations of sexual harassment before.
"She's a complete gold digger," a friend of Ms. Bialek's, quoted anonymously, told the New York Post.
"She has a history," Bill Kurtis of CBS told WLS radio Tuesday. It may have been Ms. Bialek who was the sexual aggressor, "given her track record here," Mr. Kurtis said.
Ms. Bialek worked for CBS radio station WCKG in 2006-2007.
Ms. Krausharr is currently a press aide in the Obama administration, used to work for Clinton attorney general Janet Reno and has contributed to Democrats. At another job, she made a sexual harassment charge coworkers thought frivolous.
T.J. Ward, a private detective, fed audio of Ms. Bialek making her charges and of Mr. Cain denying them into computer software which examines stress level and other factors in people's voices. It can tell 95 percent of the time whether a person is lying, Mr. Ward said. His analysis indicated Mr. Cain is truthful and Ms. Bialek is not.
In a Rasmussen poll Wednesday, 51 percent of respondents said it was at least somewhat likely the charges against Mr. Cain are both serious and true.
Saying a charge is serious doesn't make it true. Journalists pile rumor on top of innuendo, hoping people won't notice how few facts lie beneath.
There are many reasons for not supporting Herman Cain for president. But if he is forced from the race by unsubstantiated allegations from people of questionable credibility, we'll all be losers.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1476).