TV news talent took on the look of innocent bystanders being drawn into a gunfight today when GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump exchanged fire over an unsourced National Enquirer report alleging Cruz had carried on extramarital affairs with five women.

“I have to say, I’m trying to sort of figure out how to cover this,” All In anchor Chris Hayes said as he moderated a chat with MSNBC’s national correspondent Joy Reid and the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff. He noted that several outlets, including Breitbart News, had opted not to run with the National Enquirer story because it was so “thinly sourced.” Woodruff said her site “thought about writing this story several months ago, but we didn’t want to broadcast baseless rumors had no connection to reality by saying, ‘Hey, these stories are going around.’” lisademoraescolumn__140603223319But, “when the story broke and when it really blew up on Twitter today, we thought, ‘All right, let’s pull the trigger’,” she explained. The Daily Beast’s take was that it was Marco Rubio backers who had been shopping the story to media outlets for six months, with no takers.

The article in the National Enquirer, a publication whose CEO David Pecker reportedly has longstanding ties to Trump, did not name the women about whom it said political operatives linked to the infidelity rumors. It did describe them, though, including one as a “hot babe who once worked” on a Cruz campaigns. It also illustrated its story with pixilated photos of each, leading to a sort of Name That Alleged Face parlor game among reporters. Only one person is quoted by name in the piece, Roger Stone, who formerly worked on Trump’s campaign.

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Any news outlet that might have taken a higher road today got blindsided by Cruz, however, when he called a news conference on the campaign trail in Wisconsin and brought up the National Enquirer report, unsolicited. Cruz blasted Trump for being behind the “garbage” and then made a bizarrely worded statement that seemed to suggest he might copulate with a rat as long as said rat wasn’t Donald Trump. Yes, it was one of the weirder news conferences of this election cycle, which is saying a lot:

“It is a story that quoted one source on the record: Roger Stone, Donald Trump’s chief political adviser,” Cruz said, unprompted, during today’s news conference. “It is attacking my family. And what is striking is Donald’s henchman, Roger Stone, had for months been foreshadowing that this attack was coming. It’s not surprising that Donald’s tweet occurs the day before the attack comes out. And I would note that Mr. Stone is a man who has 50 years of dirty tricks behind him. He’s a man for whom a term was coined for copulating with a rodent. Well, let me be clear: Donald Trump may be a rat, but I have no desire to copulate with him.”

Things got particularly uncomfortable for CNN during a live on-air segment in which Kate Bolduan asked two talking heads – former Cruz communications director Amanda Carpenter and pro-Trump newspaper columnist Adriana Cohen – to discuss the two candidates’ clubbing each other in defense of their wives. You remember: an anti-Trump SuperPAC made an ad showing Trump’s model wife in a nude photo with a headline warning she could be the next First Lady. Trump shot back that he might “spill the beans” about Cruz’s wife, and later re-tweeted photos comparing Melania to a particularly unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife Heidi.

“I think we should move on,” Cohen said of that storyline, which was yesterday’s talker but you know how cable news likes to hang on to a good thing.  “Where we should move to is the National Enquirer story that has reported Ted Cruz has allegedly had affairs with at least five mistresses, including – you’ve been named – Amanda.”

(Actually, she had not been named in the article, though she’d been ID’d by other media outlets who’d jumped in to play that abovementioned game.)

“I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s moving on at all, Adriana,” interrupted an aghast Bolduan. After pausing to inform CNN viewers the network has no reporting of its own on the tabloid story, she then turned the floor over to Carpenter.

“What’s out there is tabloid trash,” Carpenter replied. “If someone wants to comment on it, they can talk to my lawyer. It is categorically false. You should be ashamed for spreading this kind of smut. Donald Trump supporters should be held to account for it.”

Said Bolduan, “I’m going to be much more comfortable talking about a National Enquirer report when CNN has done some reporting on that topic. … Let’s move on, because I don’t want to talk about … a National Enquirer report.”

Except that’s just what the network did, as did its competitors.

Trump, meanwhile, issued a statement on his Facebook page, denying any involvement with the tabloid report.

“I have no idea whether or not the cover story about Ted Cruz in this week’s issue of the National Enquirer is true or not, but I had absolutely nothing to do with it, did not know about it and have not, as yet, read it,” the GOP front-runner said in a statement.

But, of course, he made sure to note the tabloid had been “right about O.J. Simpson, John Edwards and many others,” referencing the former senator from North Carolina and onetime VEEP candidate, whose career ultimately was nuked by the Enquirer’s report about his love child with filmmaker Rielle Hunter.

“I certainly hope they are not right about Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” Trump added, oozing sincerity.