MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.
Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are author, Jimi Izrael, civil rights attorney and author, Arsalan Iftikhar, TV and media critic, Eric Deggans, and syndicated columnist, Ruben Navarrette.
Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellows, welcome to the shop. How we doing?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.
ERIC DEGGANS: We're good, man.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Hey, good. You?
IZRAEL: Hey, doing great. And Deggy, we haven't seen you in a while. Welcome back to the shop.
DEGGANS: Thank you so much, man. My hair was getting long.
MARTIN: I was going to say, no need to bring that up.
DEGGANS: Yeah. I wanted to come back to the Barber Shop.
IZRAEL: Deggy, what hair? Really? Let's just keep it in motion.
DEGGANS: Maybe I shouldn't even come. I don't know. Man, don't bust me like that.
IZRAEL: I don't want this to be the Herman Cain segment every week, but the GOP presidential candidate - well, he keeps finding himself on the front page in both good and bad ways. Recently, reports of alleged sexual harassment surfaced. Two female employees reportedly claim that Cain was sexually inappropriate when he led the National Restaurant Association. Then another woman came forward to the Associated Press, with a similar story. And then the mud slinging started, Michel. Now, we have a political race.
MARTIN: Exactly. An interesting choice of words. You know, he's got a new ad out. Remember, we talked about the ad with the - don't get me started on the whole Dadaist interpretation of the previous ad, please. But now he's got a new ad out responding to the criticism, and this is kind of a more traditional, you know, go hard. Go right there. Here it is. I'll just play a short clip of it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And they can't argue with Herman Cain on the merits. They can't argue with Herman Cain on policy, so what do they do?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Now, we're getting the high tech lynching of a beautiful man, Herman Cain.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: What is known as the mainstream media goes for the ugliest racial stereotypes they can to attack a black conservative.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: They put him down and that's what...
MARTIN: And those voices that you're hearing are obviously conservative talk show hosts. You just heard Rush Limbaugh there, of course. Probably the most recognizable early one is an African American female conservative talk show host, criticizing the reporting around these issues. Notably, I don't think that they addressed the substance of the criticism, which is something I will speak to in a minute, but take it back, Jimi.
IZRAEL: You know, Michel, that sounds more like the skit from an Ice Cube album than a political ad, but thanks for that. Now, you know, high tech lynching is a term Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas used, way back when Anita Hill claimed sexual harassment.
Cain actually had that statement added in later. So fellows, my question is, is the term, lynching - is it being used too freely? You know, I thought it was a problem back in the day, and here we have it now. Deggy, you wrote about this, so you're first hand.
DEGGANS: All right. Well, first of all, I think Cain should change his unofficial name from Black Walnut to Sexual Chocolate, but...
DEGGANS: But anyway...
IZRAEL: I don't know. Oh.
DEGGANS: But anyway, what I think is going on here (unintelligible) and I wrote about it this morning on my blog, The Feed, is that I think Cain is trying to inoculate his followers from these revelations that are starting to pile up. We know, now, that there's a third woman who was concerned about the way that he dealt with her. We know that one of the two women that got a settlement is asking the National Restaurant Association for a waiver from a confidentiality agreement so she can issue some kind of statement or perhaps talk to the press about what happened. We have a pollster who came forward and said that he witnessed Cain being inappropriate.
So it seems obvious that, at some point, the full story of what actually happened between Cain and these women is going to come out and it's going to seem different than the denials that he initially, at least, offered to people. So to me, this ad feels like a way to say, hey, don't believe any of that. Don't trust the mainstream press. And, certainly, I want to take my tips about journalism and race relations from Rush Limbaugh.
MARTIN: But part - but Eric, your point, though, in your piece was - do you feel that this whole using the term lynching is - what? You've had enough of it?
DEGGANS: Well, I called it a distraction, and that's exactly what - this ad embodies that tactic. The idea is to get people talking about the unfairness of the charge and adding a very, sort of, incendiary, racially tinged phrase to it to distract people from the very real details that are starting to come out, and names are starting to be attached to them. They can no longer pretend this is anonymous people cobbled together by some left-wing media organization. When you have the Associated Press and the New York Times and Politico and CNN unearthing these people, at some point you have to admit that there's some fire behind the smoke.
IZRAEL: Ruben, I don't know what to think for that, Deggy.
IZRAEL: I don't know what the talk is in your barbershop, but that's real talk.
NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
IZRAEL: You know, in my barbershop, what they're saying is if at least two out of the three of these women are not of color, you know, it's a wrap. And, you know...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: It's all done if at least two of the three of these women - you know, and again, just, you know...
NAVARRETTE: I know, civil rights is racially the only (unintelligible) .
IZRAEL: Hold on. Hold on a second. Hold on a second. Sexual harassment, that's not funny. That's not funny at all, but...
IZRAEL: ...I mean, two of these women, they better be of color, or it's - because, I mean, the worst thing you want in your president...
NAVARRETTE: Look. Listen...
IZRAEL: ...is a shirt-chaser. You know, much less, you know, go ahead, man.
NAVARRETTE: At least until we find out.
IZRAEL: Right. Right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NAVARRETTE: There are rules. Okay.
IZRAEL: Right. Go ahead.
NAVARRETTE: There are rules. If you elect a brother and you re-elect a brother, then he can do various things. But before we get elected, there's a lot, I think, that people - they begin to scratch their heads and say: Do we really want to get into this? Do we really want to buy into this? They haven't elected him yet. Bill Clinton had the advantage of already having won two elections before his business came out.
I think the - this is an important story for a lot of different reasons. But I would differ with this idea that the media has unearthed anybody. Speaking of someone who works for three or four different media companies, the media didn't unearth anybody because these are anonymous sources, up to this point. The Politico story that started it all that these other eight - these other companies like CNN, where I work, and others, have sort of piggybacked onto that story. That Politico story had anonymous sources. And so the story ran along pretty quickly all by itself without ever - anybody ever knowing what's up and anybody coming forward.
My problem with the story is that it's clear that Herman Cain is a threat primarily to the Republicans who are running for president. Let's be real about this. He's running 30 points ahead of Mitt Romney, who has a national organization, that's been running for president for six years, and who has unlimited resources. And Herman Cain is running an unconventional campaign, and he's been criticized by the pros on the Republican side for campaigning in Alabama, for instance, and ignoring Iowa and the like. They're scratching their heads, because he's still doing well in the polls. He's still leading the pack.
And so the question becomes: Is this an attempt by Republicans to torpedo Herman Cain? Is it an attempt by the media to do it? And I feel uneasy about the fact that people that I know in my business have two different answers to that question. If it's Republicans who are doing it, they're willing to call it out for what it is: a tinge of racism in the way that you attack a black man. What a coincidence that when you go after a black man, you use - what? Sexual prowess, right?
NAVARRETTE: Going back to - it's always been. It's the same story: Clarence Thomas, before that, going back to slavery days. What, you're afraid somebody's going to come in, storm the house and have sex with the nice white woman in the house, right? This is what we do with black men. And it makes me uneasy, it makes me queasy. This has got an ugly ring to it. And I found it very challenging when I wrote about this.
IZRAEL: I really don't - I don't hear that... (unintelligible)
DEGGANS: I've got to break in say. I got to break in and say...
MARTIN: No. No.
IZRAEL: No. No. No. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on.
IFTIKHAR: Excuse me.
MARTIN: No. Arsalan.
IZRAEL: Wait everybody. Hold on.
NAVARRETTE: I didn't interrupt you.
IZRAEL: Hold on. Okay, you don't...
NAVARRETTE: I did not interrupt you.
MARTIN: Ruben. Ruben, excuse me.
NAVARRETTE: Very quickly.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. Ruben, excuse me. Arsalan, I think it's your turn to get on this conversation.
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
NAVARRETTE: Okay. Well, I...
MARTIN: Everybody deserves an opportunity to be heard on this.
IFTIKHAR: I think the first thing important to keep in mind is that this is a case of sexual harassment. This is not tax evasion. So, you know, there are, you are...
IFTIKHAR: Right. Alleged sexual harassment. But again, it's not tax evasion. It's not, you know, hiring an illegal immigrant. This is about sexual harassment. I think what it goes to is our sort of national obsession with schadenfreude, you know. We had this with the Anthony Weiner scandal. You know, Herman Cain - it's like watching a car wreck in very, very slow motion, here. I think that as we continue to see - you know, let's not forget that the two women who got settlements from the National Restaurant Associations were under confidentiality agreements. And so their lawyers are trying to, you know, negotiate with the NRA to make sure that they come out with their own statements because Herman Cain has been able to come out with his own statements. So I think that as the story progresses...
You know, you want to talk about high-tech lynchings, Ann Coulter recently went on Fox News and said that our blacks are better than their blacks, basically saying that black Republicans are some - better than, you know, black Democrats. So let's not forget with Barack Obama, you know, the Republicans talked about him being a crypto-Muslim, Manchurian candidate, the birthers movement. I mean, you know, talk about high-tech lynchings from the right, that is the pot calling the kettle black.
MARTIN: Let me just clarify some of these figures, here, since people are throwing out different figures about how this is affecting Cain. There's a Post - a Washington Post-ABC poll just out where Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney are running nearly even atop the field. But that has both of them at 30 percent, okay? Seven in 10 Republicans say these reports that Cain made unwanted advances toward two employees as head of the National Restaurant Association, they say, do not matter when it comes to picking a candidate. Okay. So to this point, they're saying that there is no - that they don't care. They don't feel that this is relevant. Okay?
MARTIN: All right. Ruben, did you want to finish your point?
DEGGANS: Can I break in and just say a couple things?
MARTIN: Okay, Eric. Mm-hmm.
DEGGANS: The first thing I want to say...
MARTIN: How about one thing?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DEGGANS: The first thing I want to say is that there is a named person who has said that they have witnessed this, this pollster who said - who told an Oklahoma radio station and confirmed to CNN that he saw Cain being inappropriate with women. And Cain himself has morphed from saying that this is an anonymous, baseless attack, to admitting that a settlement may have happened. So that's the first thing that we know.
The second thing is saying that this is involving black men, given all the evidence that is dripping out, sounds suspiciously to me like saying black men can't be guilty of sexual harassment, or we can't hold them accountable for these kind of issues because it looks too much like we're being racist.
MARTIN: Okay. Ruben...
DEGGANS: And frankly, I think that's...
IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean, that...
DEGGANS: I think that's more insulting than anything.
MARTIN: Can I have my...
IZRAEL: I agree with that.
MARTIN: Can I have my word on this since we're...
MARTIN: ...like, we have other things we want to talk about. Let me just have my word on this. This is sexual harassment. It's in which a work environment is created where an employee is subject to unwelcomed verbal or physical sexual behavior that is either severe or pervasive, okay. And part of the thing that disturbs me about this is I covered the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings closely, and later did a documentary about it, it's that somehow or another the behavior itself is what gets lost. And I understand that this is a subjective...
MARTIN: ...issue here. And I think part of the issue here is because the range of behavior can be so broad, people aren't really sure what it is they're talking about.
MARTIN: I mean, this can range from people hanging, you know, pornography on the walls...
NAVARRETTE: Sure. Right.
MARTIN: ...to - and what is pornography? It can range to unwanted touching. It can also range to jokes that people say I just don't want to hear all that, and it's a consistent sort of thing.
MARTIN: So part of this is what speaks to you. We aren't really even clear about what behavior we consider acceptable or not acceptable and that's part of what the issue here is, about why it is that people need to come forward, explain exactly what the behavior was...
MARTIN: ...and whether or not they consider that appropriate behavior for a chief executive. And, anyway, so there's a lot more to talk about.
NAVARRETTE: So you asked me if I...
MARTIN: Go ahead. Ruben, finally and we're going to move on.
NAVARRETTE: Here's - everything in due course. And the fact is, when this all comes out - if this all comes out - we already know that Herman Cain has done a horrible job of responding to this stuff. There is a lot of smoke. There could be fire. But everything in due course. And what I had a problem with - I think we should all have a problem with, as consumers of news - is rushing to judgment. On day one, day two, day three of the story, when you have anonymous sources, there were too many people out there, a lot of the non-black, who were willing to jump to this illusion. Interestingly enough, my bosses at CNN and elsewhere, when they thought they could pin this on Rick Perry, all of a sudden they said, hey, talk to me about that racism think again. That could be part of it, you know. It's a different thing, because if, in fact, this came from the Republican camp, are we willing to say that this wasn't about racism?
MARTIN: Well, it's also a rushing to judgment on all sides. I mean, the fact of the matter is Ann Coulter is making these charges about what is motivating this and...
MARTIN: ...I'm not sure - was she present? Does she know what the facts are? I mean, I think that...
IFTIKHAR: And our blacks are better than their blacks.
MARTIN: You know, there's a rushing on - there's all kinds of rushing going on, anyway. If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly...
NAVARRETTE: So let's not rush.
MARTIN: Let's not rush. We are going to rush to get to the next subject, here. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with Jimi Izrael, Arsalan Iftikhar, Ruben Navarrette and TV and media critic Eric Deggans. Jimi?
IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Well, enough about mudslinging. Sadly, I'm just getting over this. Kim Kardashian filed for divorce this week from NBA player Kris Humphries. You know, and critics are saying...
IZRAEL: I know, I know, right? Critics are saying the entire wedding was a farce. And, you know, maybe it was. Kim denies it. She says it breaks her heart that people would think such a thing. Ah. Oy vey.
IFTIKHAR: Man. Man.
IZRAEL: The pearls. I say who cares, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: But people are talking about this this week. You know, Ruben, you're out there in Cali, you know, where the Kardashian clan bounce...
IZRAEL: ...and trounce around. And not for nothing.
IZRAEL: It's probably worth mentioning that this isn't Kim's first...
IZRAEL: ...try at this. You know, she's been married before. She married Damon Thomas back in the early 2000. They got a divorce in 2004. So she's...
IZRAEL: She's 0 for two. Are people...
NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I don't think she made as much...
IZRAEL: Are people...
NAVARRETTE: She didn't make as much money from that first one. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: Are people drowning their tears out there, brother?
NAVARRETTE: I think this is all about money and marketing. And, you know, there was a story I read the other day that said that Kardashian, Incorporated, you know, makes over $60 million a year - the family, the businesses, all the various products. This is an - they should teach - these Kardashian sisters should go to Harvard business school and teach a course on how to market themselves, because even though I don't get the fascination with the show or the storyline, a lot of people do.
And this is an incredible marketing ploy and an incredible marketing enterprise. And you have to understand that going into it. That's what feeds this kind of cynicism that she got married, the whole thing was staged. She actually looked for somebody. He got - this guy was scripted. He fit the bill. There was never any love. There was never any marriage. There was nothing but money, and a bunch of people fell for it. Guess what? We're going to continue to fall for it. This kind of marketing thing doesn't go away, and if people are this fascinated with the marriage, they're going to be equally fascinated with the divorce.
IFTIKHAR: Right. Well, and you...
IZRAEL: You know what it is? I don't think that people are fascinated by the Kardashians just because they're people. I think they're fascinated because it's like a lemons for - a lemonade-from-lemons story. Because if you remember, Kim Kardashian, she had a tape of her intimacy with a boyfriend come out into the public and be sold widely. And so this is kind of a story of lemonades-from-lemons, you know, more than anything. A-Train, check in.
IFTIKHAR: Man, if I hear one more story about the Kardashians, I'm going to throw out my decision and walk out the room.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IFTIKHAR: Seriously. Like, now, first of all, they spent $10 million on their wedding, but they made 18 million. Like, who makes a profit on their wedding?
NAVARRETTE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: You all seem to know a lot about this for somebody who's not interested.
DEGGANS: Reality TV...
IFTIKHAR: My wife watches "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," and is probably going to throw eggs at me when I get home. But, for me, you know, what's interesting to note - again, like you mentioned, Jimi, this is not her first marriage. But the Hollywood glitterati are talking about, you know, she should stay strong. For anybody who's opposed to gay marriage, tarnishing the sanctity of marriage, I got two words for you: Kim Kardashian.
NAVARRETTE: Right. Fair point. Fair point.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: Okay. Well, can we move on Michel, and talk about...
MARTIN: Well, I don't know. We only have a minute left, so I don't think we...
DEGGANS: Well, you haven't heard from me.
MARTIN: Eric, I think Eric needs to have the final thought on this, because as a TV guy here...
IZRAEL: Why not?
MARTIN: So go ahead, Eric.
DEGGANS: Well, the one thing I was going to say is that reality TV are like sitcoms used to be, for those of us who are of a certain age. So I think the audience of the Kardashians, they're not sitting around thinking that this marriage was real. They're sitting around enjoying the drama of the fake marriage, and then the inevitable divorce, which came just in time to boost the ratings for E! Entertainment's endless airing of the marriage special. Everybody knows that this was a union of brands, and that, in fact, Kim Kardashian was the stronger brand of the two. And I agree with Ruben. This is a woman who went from being known mostly as Paris Hilton's best buddy to a $60 million brand and beyond. And this wedding is a part of it, and I think you almost have to - you have to accept it with that kind of, sort of, you know, postmodern kind of thinking. This was never meant to be a real wedding, as far, as I'm concerned, and it's playing out with all the flourish of your best soap opera.
MARTIN: After they - they lost his invitation, and I think that's why he...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DEGGANS: I'm personally offended.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: You'll have to come back to talk about "In Living Color," because we understand that there's going to be a remake. Lots to talk about there, but we have to leave it there for now. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. He joined us from the newspaper's studio. Ruben Navarrette's a syndicated columnist. He writes for The Washington Post Writers' Group, CNN.com and PJ Media. He was with us from San Diego. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney. He's also author of "Islamic Pacificism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." He was here with me in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.
NAVARRETTE: Thank you.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
IZRAEL: Yup, yup.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.