What does journalism mean anymore? What constitutes news? What are the ethical standards to which journalists should hold themselves? If you know something, or have a source that insists that he/she knows something possibly significant, at what point do you publish? What does it even mean, ‘to publish?’ Is there a point at which a news story is so slimy you can’t bring yourself to touch it?
Did Ted Cruz do it?
In a panel discussion on Larry Wilmore’s show the other night, Wilmore asked where people turned first for news. One of the panelists said she went to Twitter first. ‘If there’s a big story breaking, Twitter will have it before anyone,’ she said. Another panelist said ‘Reddit.’ No one said, you know, ‘CNN.’ News is what it’s always been; information about the world. What’s changed is that the mediation of editors and publishers and institutions has become increasingly passé. We’ll do our own mediating, thank you. We want to know what’s going on.
And of course, a lot of what passes through Twitter and Reddit and the internet is prurient and unimportant and quite definitely Not News, in the traditional sense in which News is presumed to be consequential, not just tabloid gossip. But tabloids serve their own purpose, do they not? And can become consequential.
On Friday, news broke that the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer had published allegations that Ted Cruz had had affairs with five women, and also published oh-so-artfully distorted pictures of the women. It’s a salacious story, ugly and tawdry and vicious. I would very much prefer not to be writing about it, or even talking about it. But we’re in the middle of a Presidential campaign. Ted Cruz is one of the four people who has at least a chance of being elected President of the United States. Does a story about alleged infidelity count as news? Yes. All the more so because everyone knows about it.
It’s been interesting to see how mainstream news outlets have covered it, how gingerly they’ve brought it up, how uncomfortably awkward news anchors have appeared. Rachel Maddow both began and concluded her segment by telling us that she felt as though she needed to take a shower. The big news organizations would really rather not deal with this. They won’t want to be citing The National Enquirer. Marital infidelity is an uncomfortable subject. They feel bad for Cruz’s wife. Also Donald Trump’s wife. Which is where the whole thing began. Possibly.
A Cruz super PAC created and ran a meme showing coyly nude photos of Melania Trump, from a GQ shoot some fifteen years ago. Intended for Utah markets, just before the Utah primary, the implication was that Mrs. Trump would make a morally unfit First Lady. Trump was furious, and went on a Twitter war with Cruz, including a tweet with two contrasting photos of Melania, a former model, and a particularly unflattering one of Heidi Cruz. And the two men exchanged insults. In the midst of that unelevating back-and-forth came the Enquirer story, which Cruz insists was planted by Trump fans at the magazine. The story did source one guy only, Roger Stone, a Trump ally. And the CEO of the Enquirer is known to be a Trump friend.
And that’s what our Presidential politics has become. Insults and bullying, back and forth.
So when the story broke, Cruz gave a press conference, in which he appeared quite livid, called the story ‘garbage,’ and blamed it all on Trump. The Donald’s response, again on Twitter, was quite splendidly Trumpian: “Ted Cruz’s problem with the National Enquirer is his and his alone, and while they were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others, I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin’ Ted Cruz.” In other words: ‘it’s probably true. But I sure hope it isn’t.’ The perfect blend of sanctimony and smarm.
Okay. Personally, I couldn’t possibly care less if Ted Cruz has had consensual affairs with other consenting adults. Whether or not it happened does not, in any sense whatsoever, make me more or less inclined to vote for him. (Of course, there was never the tiniest chance I would vote for him anyway. Part of what I’m feeling right now is schadenfreud). Enough really consequential and important Presidents have also been adulterers to suggest that this particular sin probably shouldn’t be disqualifying.
But I do think the American people have a right to know one of two things. On the one hand, since the most important commitment a person can possibly make in this life is to his or her spouse, adultery would seem to tell us something pretty fundamental about someone’s character. Or, on the other hand, what does it say about Donald Trump if Ted Cruz is right, and Trump got a friend to publish an ugly and false story about a political rival? Did Ted Cruz cheat on his wife? I don’t know, and neither do you, but I do think that’s information voters should have in front of them when deciding who to vote for. Did Donald Trump plant a lying story? I don’t know, and neither do you, but if he did, that’s also information we should have.
So this story is news, and needs to be covered as news. And that means some digging, some in-depth reporting. Here are some questions I would like to know the answers to:
A PAC associated with Cruz gave half a million dollars to the Carly Fiorina campaign. That’s very unusual. It may have a perfectly innocent explanation. But on Friday, we learned that a Fiorina aide, Sarah Isgur Flores has been identified as one of Cruz’ paramours. Fiorina has also endorsed Cruz for President. A payoff, carefully laundered?
Another of the women, Katrina Pierson, is a former Tea Party congressional candidate and former Cruz aide. She now works for Trump, as his official spokesperson. She would seem to be central to the story either way. She has, however, insisted that both sides of it are false; she didn’t sleep with Cruz, and she didn’t pass the story on to Trump.
What’s the Marco Rubio angle? The Daily Beast reported on Friday that someone from the Rubio campaign had been peddling a Ted Cruz infidelity story for months, including to Breitbart.com. But Breitbart had decided not to run it, since it didn’t meet their sourcing standards.
Why is nobody talking about suing The National Enquirer? I’ll grant you that a lot of people are reluctant to sue anyone, whatever the provocation. Not everyone has Donald Trump’s itchy-suing-trigger finger. I’m just saying that if a national publication ran a story saying that I had committed adultery, and I hadn’t, I would insist on damages and a retraction. I’d sue. Cruz denied the allegations, and looked good and angry about it, but no law suit was threatened. Neither have any of the women threatened to sue, though three of them have denied the story.
There are undoubtedly other angles to this. And I do think it needs to be looked at, by actual, real, journalists. I understand that this sort of story makes everyone uncomfortable. I understand that it’s a grubby little story, and you feel gross reporting on it. But this is a genuine news story. It needs to be investigated. And, I think, it will be.