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Rob Ford and the media game

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford faces media in Toronto in December. Photo: The Canadian Press/Chris Young

A few people have asked me for my opinion on the Rob Ford story from the perspective of a working journalist. I wish I could. I’m a community news reporter so I don’t have an inkling of how the mainstream media world works other than some assumptions based on what I know about the business model.

Christie Blatchford made some good points about journalists moving the goal posts on the Rob Ford story. There’s no corroborating evidence to support printing allegations of Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, and those that exist are conjecture and hearsay. Indeed, much like the allegations of Ford’s alcohol abuse, one is left wondering whether the “informants may have many and diverse motives other than a pristine dedication to the truth.”

But what is the media to do about such a story? Ignore it? It raises the dilemma as to whether something is newsworthy merely because everybody is gossiping about it. In an older world where the print media was the preeminent source of accurate daily information, one might be able to ignore such a thing. But in a wired world where traditional print media now compete with online American news sites like Gawker, how can they pretend it’s not happening?

Let’s be clear about something. Rob Ford has brought much of the vindictive nature of the beast upon himself. Regardless of who started the war with the Toronto Star, the National Post’s Johnathan Kay described it perfectly as a “blood feud” in which neither side can back down without losing face.

Under such a climate, in which a member of the government is openly at war with the free press, there can be no expectation of honour. What began as a war with Ford and the Star has certainly led to this media witch hunt of his family. Is it ethical? Surely not. But is it predictable? I’d say so.

Although I don’t know much about the mainstream media, I do cover civic politics. And we learn to play the game, the same as the politicians. We discuss the issues with a certain level of understanding that what’s off the record is off for a good reason and that nothing that’s going to be quoted is going to be malicious.

The government is a well of information from which reporters have to draw on constantly. It makes no sense to poison that well. If one reporter does then we all suffer, because if the politician refuses to speak to the media then we can’t do our jobs. And if that politician is making a special effort to actually block our attempt to do our jobs, it becomes something personal.

In that situation, I can see why the Toronto media, the Star in particular, decided to attack. And going to war with what is arguably the largest media company in Canada doesn’t seem to me to be a very smart idea. But I digress.

I can certainly imagine that if I, as a civic reporter, were put in a position where the politicians refused to “play the game” then the gloves would have to come off. The stuff you don’t print because you’re respectful and civil and want to maintain a working relationship doesn’t matter anymore. It’s a free-for-all and the ethical lines become irrelevant.

That’s not to say that I’m defending the Toronto Star or the rest of the media for attacking the Ford family. In reality I think much of it is based on a series of forced moves, like in a chess game in which both sides must make certain decisions or else face defeat. Both sides have much for which to be ashamed. There are no innocents in this game.

But what of the attack on Ford’s family by the Globe and Mail? Well, that’s another kettle of fish. At this point we’ve gone well beyond the point of no return, with an investigative feature story on the brother of a man who may or may not have smoked crack in a video tape that may or may not even exist.

Do I believe Doug Ford was a drug dealer when he was a kid? It’s hard not to believe it, given the numerous sources the reporters spoke to. As a journalist, it’s impossible to imagine that the story wasn’t rigorously researched and combed over by a phalanx of lawyers and editors. You don’t print defamatory material wily nily.

I have significant discomfort with the fact all of the people in the story making allegations are protected of revealing their identity. It makes sense that they wouldn’t want retribution for “snitching” on a powerful family, but in that case why snitch at all? It’s not like Doug Ford is being arraigned on 25-year-old drug charges.

The question here is its relevance. Does it matter? I’m no lawyer, but a court of law would likely throw it out. If Rob Ford is on trial in the court of public opinion for smoking crack, then whether his brother dealt hashish prior to 1986 really stretches the tenuous limits of what we’re supposed to imagine this means.

But look, what it actually means is simple. It’s a smear job against the Ford family that implicates everybody in the seedy underworld of drug trafficking, making it more plausible that the current Mayor of Toronto smoked a crack pipe and stupidly allowed himself to be filmed doing it.

Doug Ford dealing drugs as a kid is only interesting right now because of his brother’s alleged involvement in smoking crack. Printing it outside of this context is certainly interesting from a gossipy perspective, but would be barely newsworthy. What this tells you is that the media are going over the Ford family with a fine toothed comb looking for any news advantage over their competitors. I have no doubt the Globe and Mail raked in some serious money on this edition.

So, what has Rob Ford done in light of the allegations of his brother’s seedy past? He’s called the media a bunch of maggots. Sigh. Thus further inflaming the war and continuing the blood feud. At the risk of repetition, it’s a mistake to pretend there are innocents in this chess game. The fact is that the media aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to continue to make life for the Fords difficult until they begin playing ball.

There are people who might think I’m defending the media’s actions or saying the Fords have no right to defend themselves. No. That’s not what I’m saying. If you want an example of how best to handle the media, Stephen Harper has been doing it expertly for years.

Harper is no friend of the media. From what I know of those who cover federal politics, he’s very selective, secretive, and careful about who gets to talk to him and when. Communications under the Harper government have been centralized so it minimizes the chances of embarrassing scandals.

But Harper is no fool. He knows exactly how to play the game. He uses the media to communicate exactly what he wants to say and doesn’t say a word more. If he’s pressed on hard questions he merely brings the topic back to the central point: his point. When pushed in another direction, he deftly brings it back with a simple phrase. “Let me be clear….” “We’ve said all along…” “This government has done x, y, and z…”

He doesn’t run and hide, or throw tantrums and call the media maggots… to their faces. Rather, he rises above to meet the challenge, and uses the system to his benefit. For that reason he’s not just a survivor as a conservative politician, he thrives in it. He is a grandmaster on this chess board. Now if only somebody could teach the Fords how to play.

7 Responses so far.

  1. jamesNo Gravatar says:

    Pretty insightful really but you have to admit that a line has been crossed here. If journalists want to be taken seriously which is something that is becoming less and less common they should take their craft seriously.

    The Rob Ford crack video saga is stuff you would expect from the onion. When the video comes out as being fake which it almost surely will the Star and the rest of them will lose even more credibility.

    On the other hand if they win and Ford leaves office we’ve just witnessed a take down that will be emulated again. The extortionist nature of this brings it to a whole new level in my opinion.

  2. johnNo Gravatar says:

    Ford called the media “maggots”. That is pretty accurate to me.

    While Ford’s name will forever be tarnished in the eyes of the public, the media have done themselves a greater diservice.

    The public’s opinion of journalists is already below sea level. It will descend even further. Don’t expect any dramatic backlash, just a slow sure increase in quiet revulsion.

  3. UnonymouseNo Gravatar says:

    It’s the medias job to unearth wrong doing – otherwise they are lackeys to the system. It’s all part of the juicy scandal mongering. As for the truth – that is always hard to crystallize.

  4. wilsonNo Gravatar says:

    ”…They’re going to continue to make life for the Fords difficult until they begin playing ball…”

    Well it appears the Ford’s have no intention of being forced to their knees by the ‘maggots’ in our media.
    Freedom of the press has crossed the line into harassment and cyberbullying, imo.

    It sounds like the Ford’s aren’t going pull down the legal veil and fight this in the courts, it’s a full frontal rebuttal in the court of public opinion.

    Imo, the ‘maggots’ in the media are gonna lose this one.

  5. StanNo Gravatar says:

    I think you need a bit of both, though it likely can’t come from the same person or politician.
    Someone needs to point out that they are indeed maggots, but that comes with a cost as you point out.

  6. Barb WestlakeNo Gravatar says:

    I love your insight, but what I love the most is your ethics in community reporting:

    “Although I don’t know much about the mainstream media, I do cover civic politics. And we learn to play the game, the same as the politicians. We discuss the issues with a certain level of understanding that what’s off the record is off for a good reason and that nothing that’s going to be quoted is going to be malicious.”

    You have earned my 100% trust.

    Thank you for your integrity and ethics. It is a pleasure reading your work.

    Barb

  7. [...] media, failing to fully crucify Ford, turned on his brother. As journalist Adrian MacNair [...]