Nancy and Michelle opened their eyes yesterday. Fortunately, their very first view of the world included Mrs. Squirrel. They looked at her for awhile. I can’t say I blame them. She’s a beautiful squirrel. But after some time they decided to explore further. They looked at each other. They looked at themselves. In fact, they spent the next several minutes looking at just about anything within sight.

Kinda like the media yesterday, after Politico broke the story of sexual harassment charges against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.

Cain himself provided plenty to look into. His responses to the story were, to put it charitably, less than consistent. First the story was baseless. Then there were allegations, but they were false. Next he remembered nothing about it. Then there was an investigation and he was cleared. Oh, and he remembered the gesture that led to one of the complaints. But he didn’t remember if there were any monetary settlements. Then he did remember there were payouts. And then he sang. Maybe he thought this whodunwhat was a musical.

Even with all that happening, there was time for Pro Publica to probe the story of the story. Did Politico publish too soon? Steven Engelberg opines:

Therein is the problem with this story. If the facts as published were part of a memo to Politico’s editors, they would amount to a first-rate tip on a story. If Cain turns out to be a serial harasser, it will surely tarnish his image as the 2012 campaign’s most likable fresh face.

Politico says it emailed the campaign for a response to the allegations on Oct. 20, and the answers quoted in Sunday’s story from both Cain and his spokesman are less than complete. But the onus remains on the news organization to nail down its story.

The unanswered questions include:

● What exactly was said or done by Cain?
● How much money was paid to each of the women?

Of course those are relevant questions. They also miss the point of investigative journalism.

The first question is impossible to answer definitively. The events occurred in the late 1990s. The settlement agreements were confidential, with non-disclosure clauses that bar the parties from discussing the incident. While Cain’s response may have waived that clause, the women involved may have other reasons not to talk to the media. Without their stories we have only Cain’s word on what happened. Even with their stories, the media will frame it as he-said-she-said and people will select the story that confirms what they want to believe. To argue that Politico should not have run the story until they had the definitive evidence of “exactly what was said or done” is to argue they should never have run the story at all.

There should be records to answer the question of how much money was paid. But what would that fact tell us? Politico reported the settlements were in the “five-figure range.” Engelberg argues:

Were the settlements $99,999 each (to borrow some of Cain’s favorite numbers)? Or a buck more than $9,999?

The former would suggest, but not prove, that something seriously untoward had occurred. The latter would sound like what lawyers term nuisance settlements – the money corporations routinely shell out to make frivolous claims go away.

His argument seems compelling, but in reality it’s pure speculation. The amount of a sexual harassment settlement depends on many factors: the nature of the charges and the evidence, the complainant’s position, pay, and potential, and the respondent’s risk, ability, and willingness to pay. Guessing the substance of the allegations from the amount of the settlement is … well … guessing. And again, people will choose the guess that confirms what they already believe.

Critics of sexual harassment law – and there are many – would say that’s exactly the point. In most sexual harassment complaints, the only evidence is the testimony of the parties. Fighting a complaint is expensive, so employers often settle with the truth unproven and often not definitively provable. Such a process, critics say, invites any woman unhappy in her job to file a harassment complaint and hope to hit the “lawsuit lottery.”

That argument also seems compelling, if you’re not worried about whether women face a hostile work environment. The legal system isn’t perfect, but scrapping it protects only those with power and privilege.

Nancy and Michelle look confused by their world. Much of it doesn’t make sense yet. Some never will. Squirrels’ understanding of the world is never complete. But that doesn’t mean the girls should keep their eyes closed.

Judging by the range of responses Herman Cain offered yesterday, Politico‘s story was correct. Not complete, but correct. The standard of investigative journalism should be correctness, not completeness. Humans’ understanding of the world is never complete either.

Good day and good nuts.