Rob Ford and the media: Four lessons from 2013
On Halloween, staff at the Toronto Star watched as the city's chief of police confirmed what the paper itself had been reporting for six months: Rob Ford, the city's mayor, smoked crack. And there was a video to prove it.
The day after that news broke, I spoke with some of the staff at the Star to find out how they'd reported the ongoing story. Before that, it didn't seem like anything could shake Ford or his popularity, despite several stories about public drunkenness and 911 calls from the mayor's home. After existence of the crack video came out, it seemed possible. Nearly two months later, things in Toronto have only gotten stranger. Certainly, the tensions happening there are fun to watch on late night television. Videos of Ford dancing to a cover of "One Love," dancing to a gospel choir at church and getting spoofed on Saturday Night Live are all kind of amazing. But there are some good things for journalists in all this, too. Here are a few.
1. Don't stop, even when pretty much everyone is telling you to.
The Star's Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan saw the video of Ford smoking crack and, after Gawker's John Cook wrote about also seeing it, they reported the story for the Star.
Ford denied it. Many times. But the Star and Gawker (and pretty much everyone else in Canada) kept reporting.
Before the chief of police confirmed there was a video, both the Star and the Globe and Mail, which ran a story about the Ford family's history with drug dealing, had to appear before the Ontario Press Council after readers complained about both papers and their coverage. The Press Council found no problems with how either paper covered Ford, and said their work was in the public interest. But the whole thing still happened.
The day after news of the video came out, the Star's Public Editor, Kathy English, wrote this in a column:
“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.”
English told me in November that the public doesn't get the persistence journalists have for covering stories.
“I don’t think the public understands that journalists try to do everything they can to get the story.”
But, Doolittle and Donovan and Cook and everyone covering Ford persisted. And they were right.
2. All media mattered.
Gawker's Cook broke the story of Ford's crack smoking, something that's gotten pushed to the sidelines a bit. The fact is, though, Gawker broke the story, even if the Star owned it. People at the Star told me that they would have, eventually, published the story. But without Gawker's piece, it wouldn't have happened when it did.
Gawker's features editor, Tom Scocca, and the Star's publisher, John Cruickshank, engaged in some back and forth through e-mails, which Scocca published, pushing the Star not to claim it was their exclusive. Their messages to each other reflect two different media cultures, as well as press restrictions and freedoms in two different countries.
In November, the two appeared on On the Media with Brooke Gladstone.
"This is another point about the symbiosis of old and new media with different constraints and ethical concerns," Gladstone said. "Because if you don't feel you can publish a story, you can almost always publish a story about a story."
The Star's story was their own, one they had in the works for awhile, and they've kept their reporting since. But it ran on the day it did because Gawker published first.
3. Blaming the media usually works (at least for a while)
They didn't light Ford's crack pipe for him, or video him smoking it, or try to sell it for cash, but in some ways, all the news about Ford is the media's fault because they stayed with the story. That's a good thing.
Ford and his brother are aware of how the public at large feels about the media, though, and they've done their best to make this about the media itself, not them. So, here's a quote flashback from the last few months of media bashing by the mayor.
In May, the Star reported Ford saying this on his now-cancelled radio show:
“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,”
Next, Ford blamed journalists for not asking the right question after he confessed to smoking the crack he earlier denied smoking.
Then, Ford's brother lectured the media, accusing them of employing Stalin-era, Pravda tactics. This was funny, at least, because if that was true, as John Semly pointed out in Now Toronto, "Pravda was actually owned by the government to disseminate propaganda. So if the Toronto media were practicing Pravda journalism, they’d be advocating uncritically for the Ford administration."
In December, Ford implied that the Star's Daniel Dale was a pedophile. Dale pushed back. And during Ford's first apology, he, again, turned things back onto the media twice. He ends his apology with this, according to the Star:
“It is unfortunate that the word I did not say has been ascribed to me by the media, but I wish to sincerely apologize again to Mr. Dale if my actual words have caused him any harm or personal offence, and if Mr. Daniel Dale is here, I want to personally apologize to him."
4. There's no such thing as a boring photo of Rob Ford.
Let's add one more, which isn't about the media, really, but it does concern the work they'll continue in 2014. Rob Ford is still Toronto's mayor. On December 18, the Star reported Ford had a 39% approval rating. He has another year left as mayor. And this won't be the last time we read about him.