Journalists criticize Donald Trump every day, but this is next-level stuff.
After the Republican presidential front-runner parroted a National Enquirer story — headline: "Ted Cruz father linked to JFK assassination!" — live on Fox News on Tuesday morning, reporters showed little restraint as they slammed Trump's wild and unfounded charge.
"His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to [Kennedy] being, you know, shot," Trump said while calling in to "Fox and Friends." "I mean the whole thing is ridiculous. What is this? Right? Prior to his being shot. And nobody even brings it up. I mean, they don't even talk about that — that was reported. And nobody talks about it."
Journalists of many stripes essentially suggested that Trump is a total dunce for believing the Enquirer.
Of course, Twitter is one thing; perhaps journalists feel a little more comfortable crying foul there. But when it comes to reporting the comments in news stories, coverage of Trump's outlandish accusation hasn't been much gentler.
Cameron Joseph in the New York Daily News called Trump's remark an "off-the-wall accusation." New York magazine's Eric Levitz, tongue firmly in cheek, wrote, "If Rafael Cruz were involved in killing Kennedy, it would shed some light on how his son, the infamous Zodiac Killer, learned his murdering ways."
The New York Post, whose editorial board has endorsed Trump, was a bit more charitable, however: "Trump stopped well short of accusing Cruz’s dad of plotting to kill JFK," wrote David K. Li and Bob Fredericks.
The man has boundaries, after all.
For what it's worth (which isn't much), the Enquirer story claims that an unidentified man (background, white shirt, dark tie) seen distributing pro-Fidel Castro leaflets with Oswald (foreground) in the footage below is Rafael Cruz circa 1963.
How does the Enquirer know? Because Mitch Goldstone, president and CEO of an outfit called ScanMyPhotos, compared the footage to old pictures of Rafael Cruz and concluded "there’s more similarity than dissimilarity. . . . It looks to be the same person, and I can say as much with a high degree of confidence."
Seems legit — just like the ScanMyPhotos website.
Still, Trump has once again said something wacky that the media can't refute with total certainty (this is an ongoing problem). The Cruz campaign has said the man in question is not the candidate's father, but there is no easy way to prove a negative. So the media are left to point out the lack of credible evidence supplied by Trump and the Enquirer without actually asserting that the report is fiction.
It's a dance that has been repeated many times over, but perhaps never has it been so difficult.
Reuters: "Trump linked Cruz's father, Rafael Cruz, to Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, citing a report by National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid known for celebrity gossip and alien sightings."
Gawker: "The Enquirer doesn’t present any actual evidence for its claim."
New York Times: "Mr. Trump has frequently embraced or promoted hypotheticals or partially formed theories."
Conservative Review: "The tabloid story Trump is citing was published by the infamous National Enquirer, evidently one of Trump's favorite news sources, and has some serious journalistic issues."
CBS News: "No other source corroborates the Enquirer's claim."
Trump surely anticipated the limits of the media blowback. He knew he'd get blasted for citing the Enquirer on the day of the Indiana primary, but he also knew the press wouldn't be able to state unequivocally that he is wrong.
It's a gray area Trump routinely exploits for reasons that are up for debate, leaving his friends in the media to sort out precisely how to handle that latest Thing Trump Said.