Just before 10:30 on Thursday morning, staff at the Toronto Star gathered around a large screen in the center of the newsroom and watched the story they’d told since May get told again. This time, though, it was Toronto Chief of Police Bill Blair doing the telling.
Police had recovered video files of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking a crack pipe.
“The video files depict images that are consistent with what has previously been reported,” Blair said.
Kevin Donovan, the head of the Star’s investigative team, and reporter Robyn Doolittle saw the cell phone video themselves back in May. They and many others at the Star have reported about it since, chiseling away around the edges of something they’d seen but didn’t physically have.
Ford repeatedly said there was no video. He didn’t smoke crack. The Star was out to get him.
Doolittle watched the news conference from a TV near the investigative team’s desks. She’d just that morning gotten 250 pages of court documents detailing the police department’s investigation into Toronto’s mayor. On their own, they felt explosive. Then came the news conference.
Doolittle, just 29, feels like she’s beginning her journalism career, she told Poynter in a phone call.
Still, Thursday morning will be hard to top.
It's real and Ford is in it. You're gonna wanna pick up a Toronto Star today. pic.twitter.com/WQXuHCAWSA
— robyndoolittle (@robyndoolittle) November 1, 2013
The video first surfaces
On Easter morning this year, Doolittle lay in bed, awake and thinking about actually getting up, when her phone rang.
“Robyn speaking,” she answered.
“Robyn Doolittle?” the voice on the other end asked.
“Robyn Doolittle from the Star?”
“I need to meet with you.”
Doolittle moved to the city hall beat from the police beat in 2010. In the fall of 2011, she started noticing domestic incidents happening at the mayor’s home. After a month’s reporting, she wrote a story about a series of 911 calls from that location. On Tuesday, March 26, Doolittle and Donovan wrote a story detailing the mayor’s drunken behavior at the Toronto Garrison Ball, where he was asked to leave.
That Easter Sunday at noon, Doolittle met with a young man in a park in the west end of Toronto. It had been five days since the Garrison Ball story ran. The source told her about a video that showed the mayor smoking crack. If the Star wanted it, it would cost $100,000, he said. He also showed Doolittle a photo. In it, Toronto’s mayor posed with three young men. One of them had just recently been killed. The mayor poses with people all the time, Doolittle knew. But when he did, he was always in a suit. In the photo, he was in sweats. And it was night. She knew this was different.
Doolittle and Donovan prepared to meet with the same source she’d met in the park, who would take them to see the video. The Star has a policy against paying sources, but to see it, they had to enter into discussions, and they hoped they could convince the source to give it to the paper for free. The meeting was cancelled twice before it finally happened.
That day, Donovan watched video after video of Toronto’s mayor, getting as familiar with Ford’s face as possible.
Before they left, Donovan and Doolittle discussed what could possibly happen, and they agreed they wouldn’t get into a different car to be taken to another location. But, they did. And, as instructed, they left their cell phones, notebooks and bags behind.
“I think for any good journalist, the fear of failure overrides any safety concerns,” Donovan told Poynter by phone.
The car stopped in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Etobicoke, and there, in the back of the car, the two watched the video. The quality was crystal clear, Doolittle said. It was well-lit, with a white wall in the background, during the day. And there was Rob Ford, rambling and bobbing in his chair. He made racist and homophobic comments. And then he took a pull out of a glass crack pipe.
“In the video, what appears to be afternoon sunlight is streaming through partially closed window blinds, lighting Ford’s face,” Doolittle and Donovan reported on May 16. “The video ends with the ringing of a cellphone (it is not clear if it is the cellphone that is being used to video the scene). The ring tone, which is a song, startles the mayor, whose slitted eyes open a bit, and he is heard to say, ‘That phone better not be on.’”
On the evening of May 16, another person who saw the video, Gawker Editor John Cook, wrote about it:
“Rob Ford, Toronto’s conservative mayor, is a wild lunatic given to making bizarre racist pronouncements and randomly slapping refrigerator magnets on cars. One reason for this is that he smokes crack cocaine. I know this because I watched him do it, on a videotape. He was fucking hiiiiigh. It’s for sale if you’ve got six figures.”
For two hours, staff at the Star scrambled to catch up and let the public know they’d seen it, too, and they had more to tell.
Myself and Kevin Donovan have viewed the video of Mayor Rob Ford that is the subject of the Gawker piece. Read the Toronto Star tomorrow
— robyndoolittle (@robyndoolittle) May 17, 2013
Yes, they were scooped, Doolittle said. But it also got the story out there. Donovan agreed.
“Had they not done it, we could have gotten the story, but it would have been a long time,” he said.
Gawker’s report actually buttressed their own, Doolittle said. While there were those who accused the Star of going after Ford, and Ford was certainly among them, Gawker had no reason to go after him. Unless there was something there.
“It was a good day,” Doolittle said. “There are things that are much bigger than being scooped.”
The story spreads
The day after Gawker broke the story of the Ford crack video, it launched a crowdfunding campaign, called Rob Ford Crackstarter, to raise $200,000 and buy the video. And Gawker did raise that money, but when it was ready to buy, was told the video was gone. Gaker donated money raised to several organizations in Canada, including the Somali Canadian Association of Etobicoke, the neighborhood at the center of much of the story.
And they kept on reporting, telling stories about the man who owned the video, the arrest of Ford’s close friend and about learning that Gawker’s Cook was watched by Toronto police while in Toronto to see the video.
Toronto’s other major papers reported on Ford, as well.
On May 26, The Globe and Mail published a story looking at a history of drug use and drug dealing by the Ford family, including the mayor’s brother, Doug Ford, a member of city council.
The Star’s reporters kept at it, too, often staking out the mayor’s home with other media. They reported on May 27 that two of Ford’s spokesmen resigned, on May 30 that Ford knew where the video was, on June 5 about the location of the drug house where Ford was photographed, and on June 13 that police launched a raid into the same neighborhood. On Aug. 10, Ford appears drunk in a video at a Taste of Danforth event. On Sept. 25, his popularity was climbing, according to a new poll. And on Oct. 1, a man close to the mayor, who was investigated for trying to get the crack video, was arrested.
The Star, and other outlets following the story, kept at it. But that persistence is a quality the public doesn’t get, the Star’s Public Editor Kathy English said in a phone interview with Poynter.
“I don’t think the public understands that journalists try to do everything they can to get the story.”
Journalism on trial
During all this, Ford pushed back. And on his weekly Sunday radio show, he played into negative public perceptions about the media.
“No matter what you say, I found out, to the media, you’re never going to make them happy. You can give them 10 bars of gold and they’re going to want — why don’t I give 15 bars of gold? Well, you know what, folks, that’s the media that we have, unfortunately,” the Star reported him saying on May 26.
On the show, Doug Ford said “80 per cent of journalists are ‘nasty son-of-a-guns.’ Rob Ford interjected: ‘Bunch of maggots.’ After a brief pause, he added, ‘Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’”
Two complaints filed with the Ontario Press Council, (you can read them both here and here,) lead to the Star, and later the Globe and Mail, to appear before the council in October. The council found no fault with the standards the Star followed: “the press council wrote that the story was in the public interest, that the reporters were thorough in analyzing the video that appeared to show the mayor smoking crack and making homophobic and racial slurs, and that Ford was given adequate opportunity to respond to the allegations before the story was published,” the Star reported. The Globe and Mail’s story was also cleared.
— Newspapers Canada (@NewspaperCanada) October 16, 2013
On Thursday, English began her column with a message to people who doubted the Star: “To anyone who somehow believed the Toronto Star would ever, ever ‘make up’ its explosive story about Mayor Rob Ford and the ‘crack cocaine’ video, I am trying to resist the urge to say ‘I told you so.’ Can’t though because indeed, I did tell you so.”
Since reporting started six months ago, English has gotten many calls from people who didn’t approve of the Star’s coverage of Ford, or supported him anyway, or didn’t support him but thought the paper was taking things too far.
Since Thursday, she’s also gotten calls from people who believed in the Star’s reporting, including a message on Friday from one woman, who has been a subscriber since the 1960s.
She always believed in the Star, the woman said, because how could anyone make these things up. “It’s just not possible.”
— TorontoStar (@TorontoStar) October 31, 2013
Investigating the mayor
The Star’s approach to coverage has been what digital editor John Ferri calls “the story so far.” They wanted readers coming to the site to see “that it was detailed, that it was comprehensive, and that it was fair and balanced,” Ferri said in a phone call.
“It’s a pretty complicated story,” he said. “There’s a lot of different players.”
The Star takes readers into the story through several different layers, including a landing page for all things Ford that shows how the story developed.
Editors at the Star set a high bar for what they’d run, Donovan said, knowing that quoting anonymous sources would cast further public doubt on what the Star knew they knew. And they knew they needed people to be on the record, as much as possible.
“So we decided we would have to really take the high road,” he said.
They went after the story bit by bit, Doolittle said.
And they used people from across the newsroom including, at some point, every member of the eight-person investigative team, Donovan said, as well as another 10 or so reporters.
Reporters are screaming. Cameras are flashing. Ford is still mayor. An incredible news day.
— robyndoolittle (@robyndoolittle) October 31, 2013
Ford’s still mayor
Yes, as was reported, there’s a video. But as of Monday, Toronto still had a mayor. Ferri’s interested to see public polling on the perception of the mayor now that the police department has confirmed what the Star’s reported. Before Thursday, it looked like Ford was going to tough things out. He’s a retail politician, Ferri said, very good at coming across as the underdog, and many people identify with him.
“There will be people who will still see him as the underdog in this.”
On his Sunday radio show, Ford apologized for public drunkenness and said that he would “ride the storm out.” He also called for the public release of the video.
Meanwhile, the staff at the Star continue their work, reporting on Monday about various reactions to the whole saga and what it would take for Toronto’s mayor to actually leave. On Friday, Doolittle told Poynter that she’d heard Toronto’s mayor was digging in and not going anywhere.
She, Donovan and the Star are planning to do the same.