It’s been a week since the National Enquirer reported that “pervy Ted Cruz” was “caught cheating” with five unnamed women. Cruz and two of the women -- who have since been identified -- have vehemently denied the allegations, and no one has presented any evidence. Yet the sordid story has made its mark, even in this sordid campaign season. Here's why:
1. Cruz addressed it: Within hours of the Enquirer story hitting newsstands, Cruz issued an unprompted denial, practically ensuring that mainstream media outlets would cover it.
Rumors about an alleged Cruz sex scandal—including unconfirmed reports of a sex tape – had been circulating for months. But mainstream news outlets kept their distance. As soon as Cruz himself brought it up, the story became fair game, media experts said.
“When these stories become difficult to report is when nobody will speak about them on the record,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. “But when they become a nightmare is when somebody denies it…When you hear every hour, ‘Ted Cruz denies allegations and accuses Trump of dirty tricks,’ It gets hard to ignore.”
Sesno is a former CNN Washington bureau chief who covered the White House and presidential campaigns.
2. It plays well with social conservatives: If Cruz can get voters to believe he is a victim of a “tabloid smear,” planted by, “Donald Trump and his henchmen,” as Cruz said last week, it perpetuates a narrative of Cruz as a victim of Trump’s bullying.
“Maybe he really wants to deny it, he’s so outraged,” Sesno said. “Maybe he wants to use it in the narrative he’s trying to create of Donald Trump as a dirty trickster.”
Dianne Bystrom, director of a center for women and politics program at Iowa State University who's written several books on women, gender and politics, pointed out that the sex scandal allegation emerged after Cruz and Trump had spent the week sniping at each other over their respective wives. That exchange was inflamed when Trump tweeted an unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz and threatened to, “spill the beans” on her.
“It also occurred to me, is Ted Cruz being told to use this attack on his wife to gain ground with his supporters?” Bystrom said.
At least one supporter was impressed. Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said Cruz was right to make a statement early.
“Nobody wants these things said about them like that, especially someone who has a set of moral standards that they live by,” Perkins said. “It is so over the top that it bounces back into the face of Donald Trump, who has not embraced the same set of moral standards.”
3. This campaign has prepared the public for anything: After months of hearing about the size of Trump’s hands and Megan Kelly’s menstrual cycle, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to speculate about whether a candidate is a serial adulterer, media observers said.
“In this bizarre campaign, it’s par for the course,” Sesno said. “It’s so hard now to figure out what matters in this election, what sticks, what does damage. We’re in this kind of free-fall of political discourse.”
4. The Enquirer was right about John Edwards: The last time the mainstream media ignored a salacious National Enquirer report about a presidential candidate and his seedy affair it turned out to be true. The candidate was, of course, John Edwards, whose girlfriend Rielle Hunter had a baby with Edwards while his wife was dying of cancer.
“If the media had aired that story back in the fall of ‘07, it would have made the Iowa caucuses," Bystrom said. "What if he had to drop out before the Iowa caucuses? What impact it would that have had in in ’08?”
Bystrom said that the proliferation of social media has made reporters more comfortable with airing stories that are first brought to light by less than reputable sources.
But there are important differences between the Edwards scoop and the story the Enquirer published last week.
The National Enquirer reporters spent months tracking Edward and Hunter. The paper eventually forced a confession when it published pictures of Edwards with the baby.
This time, though, the paper has not shown evidence of any substantial reporting.
"The language is so spongy its hard to know how firm the accusation is," said Tom Goldstein, a professor of Journalism and director of the Media Studies Program at the University of California Berkeley. "It wouldn’t pass muster in most news organizations I know."
The only named source, Roger Stone, was a former adviser of Trump's—as Cruz has pointed out. Trump and the paper’s CEO, David Pecker, are friends, which Cruz also pointed out. The Enquirer didn’t name any of the five women it accused of having flings with Cruz, but it didn’t try very hard to hide their identities either, publishing blurred pictures with black bars over the women’s faces. Two of the women, Cruz’s former communications director Amanda Carpenter and Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, have issued denials.
5. Cruz is a man of mystery: Cruz has staked his campaign on his reputation as a Washington outsider. He launched his presidential campaign after just 27 months in the Senate, making him mysterious enough for a salacious story to gain traction.
“Cruz hasn’t been around long enough for a whispering campaign,” said one longtime Democratic staffer, who added that past sex scandals that have been substantiated were old news in many D.C. circles by the time they hit the mainstream media. He added, though, that if there were any truth to the story, rumors would be flying in D.C. by now.
The details are nevertheless alluring enough to keep people talking. Who can resist the idea that five women, at least some of whom are powerful and successful in their own right, would want to sleep with Cruz.
“We’ve had our fair share of sex scandals, but this is a bizarre one,” said the same Hill staffer.
Even Glenn Beck, one of Cruz’s staunchest supporters, pointed out that Cruz isn’t necessarily known for his sex appeal.
"He doesn't have enough game,” Beck said on his radio show. “We're not talking Tom Cruise. It's Ted Cruz, have you watched him?"
In Texas, reporters who have been following Cruz’s every move for years didn't buy the idea either. One of them, Erica Grieder, an editor of Texas Monthly, took to Twitter to blast the story. She said that if there was even a kernel of truth to it, she would have heard about it.
“It's possible that even this sinister mastermind has human foibles, but would he bang a volunteer in a closet at a public event?” She tweeted last week. “No. Duh.”
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