About five years ago we were hot on the trail of a suspected murderer in one of the country's highest profile cases. A bunch of reporters were staying in the same hotel, and we had just scored an interview with someone who knew the suspect years ago. The woman said very nice things about the guy, what a good person he was, couldn't imagine him killing anyone, etc.
The next morning I was talking to a reporter from a national tabloid who told me she'd seen our interview. "I'm talking to her today," the reporter said. "She looked like a good interview."
"She was," I said. We all went our separate ways that day, looking for more sidebars and clues.
A few days later the tabloid hit the stands, and the woman I'd interviewed had changed her story 180 degrees. The photog was so incensed we went back to the woman's home and asked her how she could have changed her story so drastically.
"I just remembered a few other things," she said, smiling like she'd just won the lottery.
Checkbook journalism? Fifteen minutes of fame? Both? You make the call.
Which is why you need to be very careful if you end up covering a story like Penn State or the allegations against Herman Cain. While much of what you hear may be true, there are always people out there looking for money, fame or both.
And when I see someone give an interview accompanied by one of those high profile victim attorneys, the red flags go up.
But really, how do you know? In a he-said-she-said story, how can you tell who's telling the truth? And who's just looking for a payday? (Check out the recent Justin Bieber paternity suit for an example.)
The Penn State story is beyond creepy and sad, but you know there will be some people jumping on the lawsuit bandwagon who don't have a legitimate claim. Herman Cain's story reminds me of Bill Clinton's first run for President, when his "bimbo eruptions" made headlines. It seemed he'd had affairs with every woman in Arkansas. Who was telling the truth and who was looking for a payday? Impossible to tell.
But when covering allegations, it helps to look into the background of the person making the accusations before convicting the accused in the media. Is the accuser someone who has a history of being litigious, who's looking for a big check? Does the accuser have a motive beyond a financial one? And what's the history of any attorney involved? Dig a little deeper before jumping to conclusions. And in the Penn State case, the most interesting part of that story is the District Attorney who disappeared. Solve that mystery and you might find the truth in the whole story.
In many cases, accusations imply guilt. It's like the classic no-win question to a politician. "When did you stop beating your wife?" Guilty before answering, because the question offers a no-win scenario. In sexual harassment accusations, there is no real definition of sexual harassment when it comes to spoken word. What's funny to one woman might be offensive to another.
So be careful before jumping to any conclusions. While the "where there's smoke, there's fire" line is often true, sometimes the people feeding the fire are doing so for self-serving reasons.