After a National Enquirer story late last month quasi-alleged that Ted Cruz has serially cheated on his wife, rival candidate Donald Trump emerged as a fan of the paper, directing our attention to scoops of yore. “They were right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards, and many others,” noted Trump in a campaign statement. Implication: The Enquirer might be right this time, too.
Does Trump have a point? The Enquirer indeed found photos of O.J. sporting Bruno Magli shoes he claimed he’d never worn (which bolstered bloody footprint evidence introduced at the Juice’s civil trial). And the paper’s been spot-on in uncovering the scandals of some previous presidential candidates. Ask Gary Hart (photographed with paramour Donna Rice aboard his lap), Jesse Jackson (busted for fathering a love child), or, most famously, Edwards (caught lying after he knocked up not-wife Rielle Hunter). Given these past reportorial triumphs, should we be inclined to trust the supermarket tabloid’s highest-profile move of this election season? Was the Enquirer’s wafer-thin piece alleging that “political operatives” are “digging into at least five affairs Ted Cruz supposedly had” just the first stab at a bigger story to come?
I spoke to former Enquirer editor-in-chief David Perel—the chief orchestrator of the Enquirer’s Edwards reporting, now editorial director of In Touch magazine—to ask what he thought of Trump’s laudatory comments. “I wanted to call him and thank him,” said Perel, “and then tell him to make sure to buy In Touch. Because that’s where the people who reported those stories are now. I brought them with me.” When I asked Perel about the Enquirer’s recent Cruz headlines, he saw zero comparison to his Edwards bombshells, for which the Enquirer received Pulitzer consideration. “No one has printed a story that says Ted Cruz had an affair and here’s the proof,” said Perel. “It’s not a parallel.”
The Edwards story was an Ahab-like mission for Perel, requiring about 18 months of on-the-ground reporting and what one of his former colleagues estimates to have been about a half-million dollars in personnel and budgetary expenses. It began with Perel assigning a “ghost squad” of reporters to secretly track Rielle Hunter’s movements for months on end—resulting in a 2007 story that alleged Edwards’ infidelity. When Edwards haughtily denied the scoop while continuing to campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination, and no mainstream media outlets picked up the scent, Perel remained undaunted. In July 2008, he sent his team to stake out the many entrances to the Beverly Hilton hotel after he got a tip that Edwards would be meeting Hunter and their out-of-wedlock infant there.
Reporter Alexander Hitchen was on that Enquirer ghost squad. He staked out Hunter for months from a rented cottage in North Carolina. He trailed her to L.A., where he stayed up for 36 hours straight to at last catch Edwards red-handed. He eventually confronted the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee and 2008 Iowa caucus second-place finisher across the threshold of a public bathroom next to a Trader Vic’s in the Hilton basement. Edwards had fled there in retreat from the cameras, refusing to come out. “It was low-lit, but you could still see the color run out of his face,” recalls Hitchen. The somewhat comic video evidence that resulted brought Edwards down, forcing him to confess that he’d lied about cheating on his terminally ill wife (though he continued to deny he’d fathered a child with Hunter until he at last admitted paternity in 2010).
Hitchen was among the reporters who followed Perel to In Touch, where, last year, he helped break the story that reality TV star Josh Duggar had molested underage girls. When I asked him about the Enquirer’s recent Cruz coverage, he was circumspect. “I’m waiting to see where they’re going with the story,” he said. “Given the backlash from Cruz’s people, and the accusations leveled against the Enquirer, I would have thought that they’d be pushing the story further by now. Why aren’t they pulling out some more revelations about it? It feels strange that it was just a one-off.”
Beyond the fact that the Enquirer’s Cruz reporting is barely sourced and presents no documented evidence of any kind, there are other compelling reasons not to put much stock in it. For one, it’s been suggested that Trump has grown “cozy” with the Enquirer and its CEO, David Pecker. The Enquirer has even endorsed Trump’s presidential bid. New York magazine has hinted that Trump previously planted a negative story about Ben Carson within the tabloid’s pages. With Cruz emerging as Trump’s last rival, perhaps it’s no shock the paper has set its sights squarely on the Texas senator.
There’s also the Enquirer’s longstanding, well-earned, dubious reputation. Watch Ric Burns’ documentary Enquiring Minds to get the full sordid tale of the paper’s history, which includes mafiosi, ill-gotten photographs, a longstanding practice of paying sources, and some brilliant distribution innovations. (The Enquirer pioneered those racks holding magazines in your supermarket checkout aisle and sold the excess space in the racks to other publications.) From its inception, the Enquirer was designed to push the boundaries of decent journalism, and it has published lots of hokum. Consider, just in this election cycle, the Enquirer’s claim that Hillary Clinton is an alcoholic who’s suffered three strokes and is battling multiple sclerosis. “Failing health and a deadly thirst for power are driving Hillary Clinton to an early grave, The National ENQUIRER has learned in a bombshell investigation,” began the story, before predicting that Clinton only had six months to live. (The story ran six months ago.)
Current Enquirer editor-in-chief Dylan Howard declined to discuss the paper’s ongoing Cruz reporting, or to address the Trump endorsement. But he did defend the Enquirer’s honor in an email exchange. When I asked him why we should believe the paper, given some of the more outlandish stories it’s printed, he replied: “If you think The National ENQUIRER is reporting about aliens today, you have not picked up the magazine for a very, very long time!”
As for paying sources—a longtime, controversial policy at the paper—Howard praised the practice. “I consider tabloid checkbook journalism more effective and reliable than regular reporting,” he wrote me, “ especially considering the checks and balances that we have in place for information provided by sources. We only pay for information once it is considered credible and accurate.” The Enquirer paid sources during the Edwards investigation, but Howard says it has not (yet) paid any sources while reporting the Cruz story.
Still, the Cruz rumors have lingered, with Cruz’s wife, Heidi, still addressing the “garbage” allegations in an interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News on Tuesday night. Perhaps the reason more outlets haven’t outright dismissed the story stems from sheepishness at having ignored the Enquirer’s Edwards scoop for so long. Edwards’ infidelity had been an open secret among journalists at various prestige publications, yet they all failed to track the story down. “A number of news organizations with resources far greater than The Enquirer’s, like The New York Times, say they looked into the Edwards matter and found nothing solid enough to report,” the Times’s media desk wrote the day after Edwards’ confession. “Some of their comments point to a lack of interest in a story about the private conduct of an also-ran presidential candidate, and a distaste for following the lead of a publication they hold in low esteem.” The headline on a subsequent postmortem from the Times’ public editor was “Sometimes, There’s News in the Gutter,” and the story quoted the Times’ then-executive editor Bill Keller saying, ’”There was a tendency, fair or not, to dismiss what you read in the National Enquirer.”
Howard acknowledges he has a different standard from other outlets. “My line is further in the journalistic distance than most editors’,” he emailed me. “We win by publishing the truth, and exposing malfeasance or corruption. Therefore, the line about what is okay to publish, and how we get that information, is often considered moveable—given each individual story’s circumstance.” The line when it comes to Ted Cruz and his marriage still seems to be way beyond the horizon at this point.