In politics, they're generally known as "optics" stories: controversies involving political figures who haven't broken any laws, or violated any ethical standards, but who've found themselves in trouble for doing something that looks bad.
As a rule, it's best to approach "optics" stories with some skepticism, but there are exceptions.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is facing backlash after photos went viral that purportedly show him and his family traveling to Cancun, Mexico, as his state's residents suffer without heat, water and power because of the state's historic winter storm.
If you spent any time on social media this morning, you probably saw some of the online sleuthing, as folks examined photos and tried to determine whether Cruz really did travel to Mexico while his constituents struggled with a miserable crisis. The images certainly looked like him, but the person in the photographs was seen wearing a mask, so it was difficult to say for sure.
That said, the Houston Police Department confirmed to NBC that Cruz's staff contacted them yesterday "to assist him in his arrival and movements through Houston's international airport."
The Associated Press also reported that the Republican senator "traveled to Mexico for a family vacation as his home state struggles with a powerful winter storm that left many residents without power or safe drinking water," though the report added that Cruz is "expected to return immediately."
As a political matter, a quick return is probably wise, though he'll still need to explain what prompted him to leave Texas during a crisis in the first place.
Who knows, maybe Cruz had a loved one in Cancun who needed an immediate blood transfusion that only the senator could provide. If this was a life-saving mission, he might very well be able to justify this ill-timed excursion.
But if millions of his constituents were struggling without power, heat, and water, and Ted Cruz thought it'd be a good time to take a break at a warm seaside resort, I think it's fair to say this will be a problem for the GOP lawmaker.
Cruz allies might be tempted to argue that the crisis in Texas is a local problem, and there's not much for a U.S. senator to do. But that's wrong, too: as the New York Times' Jamelle Bouie noted, between his office and his political operation, Cruz "has thousands of contacts across the state and direct access to the kinds of people who can help organize and deliver relief," making the senator "uniquely positioned" to help his struggling constituents.
Indeed, it didn't go unnoticed that former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), whom Cruz narrowly defeated in 2018, helped organize outreach and deliveries to vulnerable Texans, apparently right around the time the incumbent senator was packing.
The downside to "optics" stories is that they sometimes overshadow related news that's every bit as meaningful. For example, interest in Cruz's apparent trip should not eclipse the ongoing needs of Texas' struggling families. It's also not more important than coming to terms with why, exactly, the Lone Star State has an energy grid that periodically collapses during winter storms.
For that matter, if there's a political Richter scale, the magnitude of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) trying to blame his state's crisis on renewable power was nearly as significant as Cruz's Mexican sojourn, if not more so.
But none of this changes the fact that the senator is about to face a whole lot of questions about his judgment, and he'll likely find them difficult to answer.
Update: Shortly after I published this, Cruz's office released a written statement. It reads in its entirety:
"This has been an infuriating week for Texans. The greatest state in the greatest country in the world has been without power. We have food lines, gas lines, and people sleeping at the neighbors’ houses. Our homes are freezing and our lights are out. Like millions of Texans, our family lost heat and power too.
"With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon. My staff and I are in constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas. We want our power back, our water on, and our homes warm. My team and I will continue using all our resources to keep Texans informed and safe."