Ted Cruz and Five Mistresses: Would the National Enquirer Know the Answer?

Last weekend, the Huffington Post traced the origin and spread of the rumor that Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz had affairs with five women. HuffPo suggested the story was a “massive game of telephone”: its engine has been an increasing number of reporters being asked about the rumor and spreading it by asking others about it. Even though no one had evidence of its truth, it became “news” through repetition.

I found two things especially interesting about the reporting cycle that occurred when this rumor surfaced in the National Enquirer, neither of them having to do with whether the rumor is true. (A NationalEnquirer.com March 23 teaser for its current cover announces, “IT’S OVER FOR PERVY TED: CRUZ’S 5 SECRET MISTRESSES!”) First, the Enquirer has a bizarrely constructed but apparently widespread credibility for reporting this kind of story. Second, that the Enquirer found a way to remain relevant in a political campaign where the candidates themselves have said such provocative things that they’ve left little room for innuendo.

No one seems to be spreading this story because there is any likelihood it is true. The news hook is the spread of the rumors themselves, or Cruz’s instant denial, along with the instant denials of two women identified from pixilated Enquirer images (which look frames from a stag movie made with LEGO pieces). The interesting point is that the mainstream media generally points out (like this quote from Vanity Fair’s coverage) that the Enquirer “does have a track record of exposing affairs by presidential candidate [sic], such as Gary Hart and John Edwards.”

This is a classic case of confirmation bias. People are looking for evidence providing an excuse to spread this story. That evidence is the “track record” of the Enquirer, which consists of the Gary Hart story from late 1987 and the John Edwards story twenty years later. Pointing to two instances where the Enquirer happened to be right is hardly proof of their accuracy in these matters. If you tell me they have been right twice I, in fact, can’t make an assessment since you have only given me the numerator. In order to assess the credibility of the story, I need to know the denominator as well, or the number of times the Enquirer has thrown the “they’re having an affair” spaghetti against the wall.

Every week, the Enquirer accuses at least one celebrity of having an affair. In fact, the main headline for the very same issue is “CHEATING BLAKE: 9 WOMEN HE’S HIDING FROM GWEN!” This puts Ted Cruz proportionally further behind Blake Shelton in sex partners than he is behind Donald Trump in delegates.

This is similar to a doctor who diagnoses every patient with cancer. During a thirty-year period, a few of the patients will likely get this blanket diagnosis confirmed by an oncologist. False positives apparently don’t count against the doctor; he was actually right on some identified occasions.

Being smart doesn’t make you immune from such reasoning. When my brother Howard texted me about this story, I said, “C’mon. It’s the Enquirer.” He reminded me that this kind of story is in their wheelhouse. “Remember, they got it right with Hart and Edwards.”

“Really, Howard? Twice? In 30 years? Out of how many accusations?”

He instantly recognized the irrational thinking pattern and we shared a laugh over it.

Kudos to the Enquirer for its ability to stay relevant. Not only has the internet proven little more than a flyspeck on its windshield, but they have shown that the supermarket checkout line is still, for millions of people, the top destination for social media.

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education