This is what a campaign in the gutter looks like.
Once again, the political world is talking about a National Enquirer story.
The last time was during the 2008 presidential campaign when the tabloid alleged that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a child out of wedlock. When the rumor first surfaced, the media largely ignored it.
It turned out to be true.
This time around, the story involves Ted Cruz and allegations of multiple extramarital affairs. To be clear, the story quotes none of the alleged women involved nor does it even mention their names. It has not been substantiated by any other media outlet, including NPR.
And despite whether any of it is true, unlike the Edwards story, this one has been harder for the media to ignore. Why? Because Cruz himself brought it up.
“Let me be clear: This National Enquirer story is garbage,” Cruz said, unprompted by questions from any reporters, in an on-camera statement in Wisconsin, where the candidate is campaigning before the April 5 primary there. “It is complete and utter lies. It is a tabloid smear.”
Cruz blamed a former Trump adviser, who was quoted in the Enquirer story, accusing him of living up to a reputation of dirty tricks.
The news conference was followed Friday afternoon by a response from Trump in a Facebook post in which Trump said he “had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
“Likewise, I have nothing to do with the National Enquirer and unlike Lyin’ Ted Cruz I do not surround myself with political hacks and henchman and then pretend total innocence,” Trump continued.
All of it was an outcrop of a heated back-and-forth between the top two GOP candidates — about their wives — that began on Twitter and spilled over to the campaign. It all started, as they say on the playground, with an anti-Trump superPAC running an ad depicting a partially nude Melania Trump and asking Utahns, home to a majority Mormon population, if this is what they want in a first lady. (Cruz went on to win all 40 of Utah’s delegates Tuesday night.)
Despite candidates not being allowed to coordinate with superPACs — and Cruz denying he had anything at all to do with what that superPAC did — Trump blamed Cruz. Trump took to Twitter and urged Cruz to “be careful” and threatened to “spill the beans on your wife.”
He never did say what said “beans” were exactly, but he sowed more distrust with Cruz by retweeting an unflattering photo of Cruz’s wife juxtaposed with his own wife. On Thursday, Cruz accused Trump of being a “sniveling coward.” (We wrap all of that here.) And, by Friday, the Enquirer story popped.
Perhaps Cruz felt compelled to address it, because since that 2008 campaign, times have changed. It’s a prime example of how social media can now turn brush fires into devastating, potentially family-destroying, forest fires.
Anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account would have been hard-pressed to avoid the story. As of 5 p.m. EDT, “National Enquirer” was the top trending item on Facebook as was #CruzSexScandal on Twitter. For some context, Twitter claims to have 320 million active monthly users and 1 billion unique monthly visits to sites with embedded tweets. Facebook claims more than 1 billion active daily users. ComScore, which ranks online activity, put Facebook and Twitter at Nos. 2 and 14, respectively, in unique monthly visitors for February, with 206 million and 117 million apiece.
For journalists, what’s trending has given a window into what people want in real time. It’s helped, in some ways, to better serve and meet audiences where they are.
But, as the media landscape evolves and media companies try to remain competitive, it also means chasing traffic and ratings — and not necessarily what’s always in the public’s best interest or even what’s true.
Maybe all of this is a predictable new normal, especially as newsmakers and public officials have tried — and in many ways succeeded — to bypass the media filter.