“Get off my property!” Pursuing the people’s mayor.

SARAH-JOYCE BATTERSBY AND KATRINA SIENIUC

  1. Precis

     

    When news broke that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had been seen in a video smoking crack cocaine, the days of conventional City Hall reporting ended. The pack descended, and the waiting game began. 


    Ford was well into his mayoralty when the crack story first broke on May 16, 2013. He had already been close to losing his office for allegedly violating the Ontario Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. He had already used city resources to coach high school football on the side. He had already admitted to reading while driving and even called the cops on a CBC prankster at his front door. His seemingly never-ending, always evolving gag reel of missteps made him a fixture of Toronto media.


    Then along came the rest of the world.


    American gossip website Gawker broke the crack video story, and soon countless other media outlets that had never before cared about Toronto’s municipal politics started sending their star personalities to scope out the scene at the clam shell.  


    Ford had always been only selectively available to the media. Now, the group of reporters he was dodging had grown. As more and more people wanted answers, Ford answered less and less. His refusal to comment, combined with journalists’ need to know, cooked up a fiery press pack taking on the mayor day in, day out, for weeks. 


    Did the press play right into Ford’s media playbook with its coverage of the crack scandal? What options did city hall reporters have? And did the press ultimately do the right thing for their audiences and live up to their ethics codes? The following essay delves into the ethical quandaries that arise from pack journalism.


    Setting the tone for the Ford mayoralty

     

    Even before becoming mayor, Ford’s behaviour in council and in public, and his tendency to deny any wrongdoing, was well documented.

    As a councillor, he was thrown out of a Maple Leafs game for his drunken rowdiness, an incident he initially denied, saying he had never even been at the game. And he was arrested for drunk driving in Florida in 1999, an incident he also denied until admitting to it just months before his election to the mayor’s office.

     

    As his mayoralty went on, the media gathered a gag reel packed with strange and confounding, but mostly harmless, gaffes.


    Highlights include the mayor’s As It Happens interview soon after being elected. He answered host Carol Off’s questions between bellows to the high school football team he coached. Then he abruptly ended the interview.


    “Pardon me? I can’t talk to you right now—I’m really, I’m on a really tight schedule,” said Ford, before haphazardly wrapping up, promising Off they’d chat again soon, and hanging up.

     

    That interview, on the day after his election, set the tone, on a national stage, for the next three years of Mayor Ford’s stunted and strange interactions with the press. (Something that had been on full display throughout the mayoral election campaign.)

     

    Rob Ford was an unconventional councillor who became the unconventional mayor.

     

    And he has developed an unconventional approach to dealing with the media.


    The Ford Media Playbook


  2. When Gawker and The Toronto Star reported that a drug dealer tried selling them a then-alleged video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, “it’s ridiculous” was all the mayor said in response for over a week. It would be eight days until he held a press conference to address the allegations, and, still, he chose his words carefully —“I cannot comment on a video I have not seen or does not exist” — and left many questions unanswered.

     

    As more questions surfaced over the following weeks — about the photo, the homicide victim, the alleged crack house and its residents — the mayor continued to give the media the silent treatment. At one press conference in June, he five times swatted away reporters’ questions about the piling allegations against him with the response “anything else?” and then left the room.


    These kinds of media-mayor interactions became a summer routine: Ford would hold last-minute press conferences where he would read a prepared statement on the day’s business and then walk away as reporters’ questions about crack and drug dealers hung awkwardly in the air.

  3. But even before the crack-scandal, Mayor Ford wasn’t known for penciling many media dates into his schedule.

     

    Jonathan Goldsbie, a city hall reporter for Now Magazine, said he recalls only one time that the mayor has ever set foot in the press gallery during his mayoralty.

     

    “He has this quality of a rare beast about him that any time you find him in person and have the opportunity to speak to him is a real special occasion,” said Goldsbie.

     

    Jeffrey Dvorkin, former CBC journalist, NPR ombudsman, and current journalism program director at the University of Toronto, said that part of the problem when covering Mayor Ford is that he carefully chooses his interviews.

     

    “If you’re not a friend of Fords you don’t have access,” he said. For example, “Rob Ford is very happy to go on the John Oakley show on AM 640. And they’re on first name basis.”

     

    Likewise, the last time Goldsbie can remember the mayor doing a one-on-one interview with a Toronto newspaper other than Joe Warmington from the Toronto Sun, who he regularly sits down with, was in 2011.

  4. According to Patrice Dutil, a politics and public administration expert from Ryerson University, politicians often use this kind of interview favoritism to control their message and set their own media agenda.

     

    “Otherwise you’re constantly playing in the hands of the opposition, you’re constantly reacting to what the opposition is saying,” he said. “This is an opportunity to put your message forward and hopefully to have it conveyed directly to the voting population and not translated or not seen through the prism of a journalist or a media outlet that might be hostile to him or her.”

     

    Dvorkin said it’s not unusual for politicians to steer clear of the media in this way, pointing out that federal politicians in Canada have been avoiding the Ottawa press core since the Chrétien years; U.S. President Barack Obama, he noted, has given fewer press conferences than his predecessor, George W. Bush, and when he does, he exclusively goes to a couple of reporters in the press pool.

     

    Thinking back to when he covered the late Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau, Dvorkin remembers one time when the media chased Drapeau down a corridor. “He actually slapped the microphone out of the hand of the reporter,” said Dvorkin.


     “It’s not just Rob Ford,” he said “This is a pattern of behaviour that politicians are increasingly resorting to and it is gives them the impression of being beleaguered, which is actually what they want. They want to be able to say they are victims of the media.”

  5. Journalist and author Craig Crawford writes about politicians’ calculated efforts to play victims of the media. Crawford asserts that in the Bush-Senior era, “politicians and their friends conducted a full assault on ‘liberal media.’ The Bush family made it a personal crusade.” Clinton, he goes on to argue, “perfected some of their techniques when faced with coverage of his personal life.” Finally, “a new cable outlet, the Fox News Channel, pursued and found a winning audience of those who believed the media was biased against conservatives.” With this, Crawford argues that politicians succeeded in provoking Americans to view the mainstream media as an enemy to their culture and values (Craig Crawford, Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media, 2006).

  6. Although the Canadian media beast is very different from that in the United States, Mayor Ford and his brother Doug have regularly decried the Toronto media for conspiring against them.

  7. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to say there’s a bias in the mainstream liberal media in this city against Rob Ford,” Doug Ford said to a graduate journalism class at Ryerson University in November. “With the foam coming out of their mouth trying to come at us, I wouldn't say that’s fair.”

  8. Doug Ford further called the Toronto media the biggest bullies on the planet. “I have not seen any politician being harassed, his family being harassed, like we’ve been harassed,” he said.

     

    Councillor Ford went on the offensive again in a December scrum with reporters, comparing the Toronto media to “Soviet Stalin-era Pravda journalism,” reported Daniel Dale of The Toronto Star.

     

    “For the folks that don’t know what Pravda journalism [is], back in the day of Stalin, that tries to coerce, get the people to believe in what they’re doing,” he said in Dale’s transcript of the scrum.

  9. In Dutil’s opinion, the game of the Fords is to get media attention — good or bad.

    Just get their face in the media and get people to talk about them,” he said.

     

    Dutil believes the mayor hasn't resigned yet because he is in survival mode, fearing that if he’s out of the public view, he will disappear.

     

    Even so, Mayor Ford continues to largely ignore Toronto and national media. The day after the police publicly released wiretap information that contained new allegations of blackmail, bribery and heroin use in a case involving the Mayor Ford’s friend Alessandro Lisi, the mayor went on a U.S. radio show, 106.7 The Fan in Washington D.C., for 24 minutes — and invited the station to city hall — while ignoring all questions from Toronto media.

  10. For Dvorkin, a reasoned relationship between the Fords and the media is a lost cause at this point.

     

    “It’s not in [Mayor Ford’s] interest to speak to the media, he feels that this is not how he can best get his message out to Ford Nation, and frankly the media wants to ask him tough and embarrassing questions,” he said.  “The game is done for the media and the Ford administration.”

  11. Boundary lines


    In a survey of news editors’ attitudes to closely covering the private lives of public officials, Sigman Splichal and Bruce Garrison found “newspaper editors appear to concede that, as distasteful as it is, such reporting is likely to stay. Like it or not, they must report such information if it becomes newsworthy, which nowadays is synonymous with published elsewhere” (Sigman Splichal and Bruce Garrison, “News Editors show Concern for Privacy of  Public Officials," 2003).

     

    They go on to note that readers’ interest in such stories is often a motivating factor in covering them, but at the same time “giving readers what they want hurts news media credibility.” Thus the dilemma becomes a case of giving the public the information they need and want at the cost of being disliked for that very act (Splichal and Garrison, 2003).

  12. Rob Ford Erupts, Pushes Press Off Property (Raw Video)

  13. Some viewed the throng of reporters, photographers, and camera people that converged on Ford’s driveway the morning police chief Bill Blair announced police had the infamous tape as a paparazzi-like pack of privacy invaders.


    In response to one such reader, the Globe and Mail’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, wrote that photographers “have a right to take news photographs while standing on public property (such as a sidewalk), but if they were asked not to be on Mr. Ford’s private driveway, in my view, they should comply.”


    Provided the journalists stay on public property (as this group did not always do), the pack is not breaking any legal boundaries in their reporting. But what of the ethical concerns?

    Once again, Ford’s unconventional tactics make the ethics uncertain. Mayor Ford declares himself the people’s mayor, inviting the whole city to his backyard barbecues and handing out his personal phone number to anyone who will listen. So how can a reporter draw a line between the mayor and the man when Ford himself often doesn’t?

     

    As an illustration: When the crack story broke in May, Goldsbie, in an attempt to get some sort of response, tried the mayor’s cell phone number. And he wasn’t the only reporter who tried the number.

     

    Weeks later, the mayor returned the call.

    “So there was one day in mid-June when he was returning the calls of the all the different reporters who tried getting a hold of him … So I spoke to him very briefly. I felt the ethical thing to do was define myself as media … and he said I called his home and please don't ever call his home again.”

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