Ford, the Press, and the 12th Man

The news business is a business, and businesses have to find ways to make money. Obvious as that may be, I regularly have to remind myself that as honest, intrepid and incorruptible as the members of the City Hall Press Gallery may be, they are, in the summation, agents of competing, for-profit businesses.

And those businesses are, inarguably, having a rough go. Every month we’re told that readership is down, ads are down, jerks on the internet won’t pay, and the end is nigh. All of that is probably true, which is why Rob Ford is, for people in news, especially print news, manna from Heaven. Ford is, without a doubt, the best thing to happen to the news business in Toronto, ever. Ever.

It’s no wonder the press wants to keep Ford in office. The Mayor is a one-man headline-writing machine. Even in the pre-crack days, he was always saying or doing something newsworthy. Remember when the silliest thing Rob did was flip the bird at other drivers? How about the time he was reading documents while plowing down the Gardiner? Oh, the good old days. Of course we know now he was probably either stoned off his ass or drunk as fuck in those incidents, but we were more innocent then. They Mayor was just a dangerous lunatic, not a dangerous drug-addled, drunken lunatic. Simpler times.

Now that we’ve been dropped into the crater of a post-crack world, Ford has gone from being good for the news business to being the news business. Policy? What’s that? Votes at Council? Only important in the context of Rob and/or Doug’s looney position on a given matter. For the last 2 years, at least, the daily schedule at City Hall has broken down, roughly, like this:

  1. Start with a mad scrum in front of Rob’s office. If they’re lucky, Rob doesn’t sneak in the back door and the press will have a chance to shout over each other for a few minutes.
  2. Get reactions from other councillors to the most recent revelations about, or comments by, the Mayor
  3. Wait to get a picture of Rob sneaking out the back door of his office.
  4. Rush off to the daily Doug scrum.
  5. Get reactions from other councillors to Doug’s most recent comments.
  6. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It doesn’t do a goddamn thing for the city, but it must sell papers, right?

For all the accusations that the press goes to far in its pursuit of the elusive and evasive “leader” of Toronto’s government, they really don’t go very far at all. You might count the frenzy of arms and legs that passes for a scrum nowadays as too far, but it’s so entirely unproductive, it’s more a form of performance art than it is an attempt to hassle the Mayor for a quote. Never forget that the two biggest things the Mayor has said in the last year, the crack admission and “enough to eat at home” both came at a time of the Mayor’s choosing. In the case of the crack admission, Ford essentially asked himself the question.

The strongest things ever said about Ford, in the print media anyway, have come in the form of half-hearted editorials. “Ford must go!”, they’ll say. “Ford is an embarrassment and bad for the city!”, they’ll cry. But for all their heart-felt sentiment, editors can’t seem control their impulse to splash a Ford on A1 every chance they get. Our occasional Mayor is crippling our city and ruining our future, we’re told, but on the list of priorities what’s a city compared to the need to perpetuate a media enterprise? As much as I want to see hard-working journalists get paid, it’s getting harder and harder to square those two ideas. Either papers stand by their editorial stand with action, or they don’t. And the only action that would work with Ford would be to ignore him. And, thus far, it’s not something the press has been willing to do, for principles or any other reason.

But it’s always been this way, hasn’t it? Back in 2010 I spent a lot of time on Twitter wondering why the dailies, the Star especially, which often played the “Ford is bad, but business is good” game, ran polls nearly every day, the headline for which would invariably be: “Ford maintains lead”, “Ford lead stills strong”, “Ford widens gap”, or something equally positive about the momentum of the Ford campaign. “Don’t they know,” I would muse, “that this shit is free PR for the Ford campaign and is probably helping him win?” No one was listening. “Hey,” came the practiced response, “we gotta cover the news.”

And cover they have. Without the stalwart efforts of the press, we might not know about the drunk driving in Florida, or the Garrison Ball, or the crack story (well, that one we would probably know), and without the money the press spends on lawyers, we might never have seen the Project Brazen 2 documents. All of this is a valuable public service and, for a while, put the Mayor, a man all of the major dailies have said is bad for the city, on the ropes. But at the same time, they were hurting him, they were helping him, plastering his red face on every conceivable form of media to be taken pity upon by a sympathetic public. Or, at least enough of the public to make a difference in Ford’s political life.

As we enter another gruelling, ridiculously over-long campaign, I’m already seeing the press PR machine revving up again. The first big event came this week at the abysmally conceived CityNews debate. Would the press, as I’ve suggested, feature Ford in positively or neutrally spun headlines, despite the fact that he’d done nothing but regurgitate the same talking points and bald-faced lies for over a year? Or, would they take a more critical approach to covering the Mayor?

Well…

Of all the major papers, which one managed the least supportive headline? The National Post. No wonder it’s quickly becoming my favourite read…

Thank fuck for Jonathan Goldsbie at NOW, and Edward Keenan at The Grid, or I might be ready to put my head through a fucking window…

I plan to use #ShitShow2014, a creation of Goldsbie’s, for the rest of the campaign. It’s perfect.

And yes, I know that countless litres of ink have been spent debunking Ford’s lies, but it isn’t having any effect. Even this morning’s “tough interview” on Metro Morning was a win for Ford. Matt Galloway peppered him with tough questions, but the host was, for all his efforts, merely paying lip service to Ford’s detractors. Ford got his airtime, he spouted his talking points, he went home. For the Mayor, it was no harm, no foul. Remember that well over 60% of people in this city have said they wouldn’t vote for Ford under any circumstance. Having to tell people you’re not a criminal, as Ford did this morning, may seem like a solid blow to Ford’s chances, but I don’t suspect it did any more harm than the year’s worth of “bad press” he’s already weathered, all of which has, thus far, failed to oust him from public life.

If the press, those who present us with the news in various mediums, really had a problem with Ford, they’d stop reporting on him. But they can’t, of course. If Ford’s hooked on crack, reporters are unquestionably hooked on Ford on crack. And now that Robyn Doolittle has shown Ford can translate into a measure of celebrity, reporters will be lining up around the block for a bit of that Rob Ford rock.

So, while “ignore it and it will go away” is advice that’s sure to fall on deaf ears, what other strategy do those who oppose Ford have left, when everything else has been tried and come up short? Hammer on his lies. Nothing. Expose his crimes. Nothing. Crowd around his office shouting questions. Nothing. Chase to and from City Hall. Nothing.

Either the news media is ran out of ideas a long time ago, or…

…the publishers and certainly the stockholders of the city’s major media companies know that a chaotic City Hall with Ford sells better than a well-managed one without him. And while David Soknacki or Olivia Chow would be in the order of 1,000,000,000 times better in the job, neither of them is going to be worth a shit at the newsstand. If Rob loses the next election, no matter who takes his place, engagement in city politics will nosedive. And why wouldn’t it? We’re all going to need a long vacation from this. But, if Rob’s still there, well…you remember Mike Harris’ second term? Things will only get crazier, and crazy is money in the bank.

I want to be clear here: I’m not suggesting front-line reporters have held back or will hold back, or that they’ll tailor stories to put the Mayor in a more favourable light. Nor am I suggesting a reporter has ever done that. And if I did suggest that, I couldn’t prove it. While I do think the approach of the front-line reporters to covering Ford at City Hall has been head-shakingly bizarre, mostly in since the crack admission, it has been straight-up, honest reporting.

(I’ve wrote a bit about the press’ unflinching loyalty to the “all shouting” scrum strategy here: http://joshuahind.com/2013/11/01/you-gotta-blame-the-thing-up-here/)

However…

I am definitely suggesting the editors and publishers of Toronto’s news media know that Ford is good for them and wouldn’t shed a single tear if he were re-elected. In fact, they might break out the bubbly and to that end, I expect editors and publishers to be as helpful to Ford this time around as they were in 2010.

Unless you’re the kind of person who’s naïve enough to think that running polls, no matter how bogus, every day of the summer of 2010 proclaiming Ford’s imminent victory did not contribute to his eventual victory, you already know what I’m saying is true. You’ve seen it all before.

For Rob Ford, good press is good, and bad press is good. All Rob has to do is stay out there in the spotlight and use every opportunity he’s given to hit his talking points, fictional as they may be. That’s his whole strategy, laid bare before campaign even began and whoever plays into it, by giving him the coverage he needs to win, is complicit in his success. Even those obviously trying to do a public good by outing his lies are, in the end, only helping him.

If all the press wants to do is sell papers and increase viewership, than by all means carry on, ’cause it seems like it’s working. But spare us the editorials. Spare us the columns. Spare us anything that talks about how bad Ford is for city; as long as you keep helping him along, you’re aren’t doing us any good either.

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