Rob Ford: Professor of Journalism

What the Toronto Mayor's reign of error has taught me about difficult municipal politicians and the people who cover them

Siobhan McClelland
January 9, 2013 | Comments (0) - Report an Error
Illustration by Jay Bone

[Text contains three clarifications to original article as published in the RRJ print edition:]

When I started my journalism studies at Ryerson University, I naively thought I would be learning how to be a good reporter from the professors and practitioners visiting my classroom. Boy was I wrong. It isn’t the classroom that provides the answers to how to be a good journalist and how to delve into investigative reporting. For these lessons, and much more, I had to look to the most unlikely place: Toronto City Hall.

There he sits during the months before the bombshell that would call for his removal from office, my greatest teacher, in city council’s first row. He is quiet and looks bored, with his hands folded over his protruding belly. Around him, the councillors are squabbling like children as the speaker tries to keep them in check. But my mentor pays no attention as he stares off into the distance.

At first, I was shocked to discover the one man who would teach me important reporting lessons is the same man who has been shutting out members of the press. Yet, I am fascinated by how he is able to restrict access to the press and circumvent some media outlets. Though some journalists may try to thwart him, Mayor Rob Ford manages to keep his core support while also raising questions about whether media coverage of him has been fair. Here are 10 lessons I’ve learned from Ford—lessons every budding journalist should know.

Lesson 1: Beware the go-to contrary politician; he may turn on you one day

Ford didn’t always shut out journalists; back when he was a city councillor from 2000‑2010, he actively engaged them. “He was basically famous for losing 44:1 votes,” says John Michael McGrath, a former reporter for OpenFile in Toronto. “He was always in the opposition and, even by the standards of the conservative opposition under [then Mayor David] Miller, was usually the most isolated opponent.”

Edward Keenan, one of The Grid’s senior editors, says Ford would be “the only person opposed to things, and the theory that would go around a lot was that he did that intentionally so that he would get quoted.”

Back when current Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was a city hall observer, he was also happy to give his views to journalists. But unlike Ford, Nenshi, as mayor, is still maintaining a good relationship with the press and is actively involved in social media.

Lesson 2: When the difficult politician shuns you, work around him

On July 13, 2010, the Toronto Star published a story that relied heavily on anonymous sources, suggesting Ford may have had a physical altercation with a player on a high school football team he used to coach. This outraged the soon-to-be mayor, who denied anything of the sort occurred and demanded the Star apologize. Once Ford became mayor, the Star says his office stopped sending the paper media releases. The mayor’s office disagreed, and issued a statement saying “the Toronto Star receives all notifications, press releases, [and] media advisories from the City of Toronto.”

“They don’t send us press releases and that’s really irritating, but it’s not something that we’re not working around,” Star urban affairs reporter Robyn Doolittle said at Toronto’s The Word on the Street in September. The Star often relies on the kindness of its competitors to get copies of releases. As well, the paper has filed a complaint to the City’s integrity commissioner about Ford’s exclusion of the newspaper from the mayor’s office’s e-mail list and not being notified of the mayor’s appearances and public statements—a barrier the Star gets around by regularly filing Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act requests to find out what Ford has been up to. In May 2012, for instance, the Star reported that the mayor was “doing less than half the official work he was doing this time last year” according to FOIA freedom of information requests. Even though Ford continued to talk to some print-based reporters until this fall, he is participating in far fewer scrums than his predecessor. Regular scrums are one of the tools city hall reporters use in Canada to access politicians and get their burning questions answered. But, as The Globe and Mail Toronto columnist Marcus Gee notes, Ford’s scrums are very brief: “Three, four or five questions at the most. Very brief answers, then they rush him off.” And, of course, during a scrum, Ford rarely answers a question posed by a Star reporter.

Lesson 3: If the difficult politician shuns you, tell your readers he’s shunning you

When Ford or his office won’t comment on a story, it’s customary for the Star to note this in the story. But does anyone really notice or care?

“I think the public just thinks we’re a bunch of whiners when we complain about not having access to either politicians or to public documents,” says Kelly Toughill, director of the school of journalism and associate professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax. “[But I also] think it’s important to note when people won’t answer questions, even if we do look like whiners." Similarly, Gee says: “I think all you can do is remind readers that the mayor, or whoever it is, is not speaking to you and let them draw their conclusions. That’s what the Star has done. They make it a practice of saying, of pointing out, that the mayor didn’t comment to them. I think people ultimately will judge politicians harshly for spurning the press in that way—at least I hope so, although the press isn’t the most popular institution in the world.”

Lesson 4: Social media can be a terrific communications tool for municipal politicians

Some politicians in Canada grant greater access not only to the press but also to voters. For instance, Hamilton Spectator urban affairs reporter Emma Reilly notices that in Hamilton, Ont., there is a lot of interaction between municipal politicians and the public using Twitter. While she cautions Twitter is often just “another avenue” for politicians to state their party’s position, she also says “there are politicians like Justin Trudeau, for example, who doesn’t really seem to follow the party line and engages on Twitter in a way that I think is valuable a lot of the time.”

Ottawa Citizen reporter David Reevely says social media is “really useful for politicians who want to be accessible. It makes them more accessible.” But he adds that if a politician doesn’t want to answer questions, social media can be used as a mechanism to create distance.

“I think politicians have always tried to limit access,” adds Toughill. “I think they have more capacity to limit access now because they have more direct routes to reach the public than they used to.” She also says social media gives politicians “an entirely different capacity to reach and interact with the public without the gatekeepers of the media filtering that communication,” but still says that “there is significant value in putting those messages in context and also checking the veracity of them.”

Lesson 5: But for one difficult politician in particular, an older medium works best

For Ford, it isn’t social media that allows him to bypass the press. Instead, he’s back in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s world, using radio to speak directly to his supporters. In his councillor years, Ford would complain about city hall through John Oakley’s morning show on AM640. Now, Ford and his brother Doug Ford, also a councillor, use their weekly radio show The City with Mayor Rob Ford on Newstalk 1010 to address voters, complain about the press and explain some of the perceived gaffes or mistakes that have occurred during Ford’s time as mayor.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Ford or his brother from attacking even their own radio station. During the September 23 broadcast, Ford told listeners that a trip to Chicago earlier that week, which Ford and several city councillors went on, “didn’t cost the taxpayers a dime.” Newstalk ran an update during a advertising during a commercial break in the show, suggesting Ford’s claims that the Chicago trip wouldn’t cost taxpayers money were untrue, resulting in Ford calling the media “pathological liars,” a group that would include Newstalk staff. Doug Ford also called members of the media “a bunch of little sucky little kids” who “whine and cry and moan” when the brothers stand up to them.

Lesson 6: It’s okay to poke fun at a difficult politician

If you’re an urban affairs reporter who hasn’t been in the mayor’s office for a year-and-a-half, what do you do? Well, if you’re the Star’s Robyn Doolittle, you go anyway and then write a parody about your experience entering “forbidden territory.” Even better, you videotape it.

This was not your typical break-and-enter. In fact, Ford’s office actually invited the reporter—as a member of the public—to his office. During the last weekend of May 2012, Doors Open Toronto held a city-wide event during which buildings not usually accessible or free to visit were open to all. Dressed in a form-fitting black ensemble befitting a burglar and toting binoculars, Doolittle was allowed into the area outside the mayor’s office, along with a group of Japanese tourists. She stood on the threshold of Ford’s office and peeped in. Looking through her binoculars, Doolittle scanned the territory. Sadly, it was gravy-free. But at least Doolittle was permitted to step on the mayor’s infamous scale that was part of his Cut-the-Waist Challenge.

Lesson 7: But be careful of going too far when poking fun at a difficult politician

In April 2012, the Star posted a video on its website of Ford walking into a KFC restaurant, with the sound of a woman laughing. It appeared the video was mocking Ford for going to the fast-food outlet when he was supposed to be losing weight in his very public weight-loss campaign, which began in January 2012. But as anyone struggling with those extra pounds can tell you, dieting isn’t as easy as not providing press releases. Ford faltered in his weight-loss attempt and started skipping his weekly weigh-ins, which were regularly attended by city hall reporters.

The KFC video led many readers to question the newspaper’s decision to publish it online, with much negative response.  "Sometimes I feel sorry for Rob,” says Gerald Hannon, a freelance writer who wrote an article for Toronto Life about Ford as he was campaigning for mayor. “There’s a bit too much glee in the Star’s take on Rob. I can see it could bring out the opposite reaction than what the Star might want, that people could begin to sympathize with him.”

Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy says she doesn’t remember ever writing anything remotely about Mayor David Miller’s eating habits, weight gain or loss, or anything like that. “I talked about his policies. I stuck to what I felt was professional. Now yes, I did call him ‘his blondness,’ but that was all in fun. And he made hair a matter of his own campaign. He talked about the mayor with nice hair.”

Lesson 8: And be even more careful when encroaching on the home turf of the difficult politician

On May 2, 2012, Star reporter Daniel Dale was found near the mayor’s backyard. Around 7:30 p.m., Ford was in his house with his family when a neighbour came by to tell the mayor there was a man outside. Ford went to investigate, cornered Dale on public land and charged towards him. Faced with an angry, over 300-pound burly politician, the rail-thin Dale ran off.

“Every time I tried to sidestep him to escape, he moved with me and yelled at me again to drop my phone,” says Dale said after the incident. “I became more frightened than I can remember; after two or three attempts to dart away, I threw my phone and my recorder down on the grass, yelled that he could take them and ran.”

Ford accused the reporter of standing on cinderblocks and peering over the fence into Ford’s backyard. Dale denied he was spying on the mayor, saying he was on public property doing a story on Ford’s attempt to purchase the land adjacent to the Fords’ home when the mayor ran towards Dale with a fist raised. The police were called to Ford’s home.

“You may not like my politics,” Ford said to the press after the incident, “but don’t start taking pictures of my family—my wife’s home, my kids are home—in my backyard.” 

There have been past incidents at Ford’s house that have led to the police being called, including the visit from sword-wielding Mary Walsh, a former member of comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, dressed as her character Marg Delahunty, Warrior Princess. As well, there was a more serious threat from an ex-boyfriend of Ford’s sister, which resulted in the man being charged with two counts of threatening death, forcible entry and possession of heroin and cocaine. With this history, it’s hardly a surprise Ford reacted the way he did. “You’ve had death threats to your house,” says Ezra Levant, a Toronto Sun columnist. “You’ve had that big old moose [Delahunty] from the CBC storm onto your property in the morning... You’ve had property trespasses. You’re worried about your safety. You’re in this frame of mind and your neighbour rushes over and says, ‘There’s someone in the forest behind your house.’ How could you not take that personally?”

Lesson 9: When dealing with the difficult politician, keep accurate notes to track his changing stories and viewpoints

Ford has certainly had his difficult moments. Like being charged with possession of marijuana. Or making drunken, offensive statements at a Maple Leafs game that resulted in his ejection from the game. Or offering to score OxyContin for a stranger who was in pain during his mayoral campaign.

To handle these situations, Ford’s strategy when confronted with a questionable incident is often to deny the incident ever took place. For instance, when initially confronted about the marijuana possession charge from 1999, Ford told Toronto Sun reporter Jonathan Jenkins: “No, to answer your question. I’m dead serious. When I say ‘no’ I mean never. No question. Now I’m getting  offended. No means no.” After Ford was provided with evidence of the charge, he changed his story, admitting police found a joint in his back pocket.

While at a Maple Leafs game on April 15, 2006, an intoxicated Ford shouted obscenities at those around him, including asking one person at the game, “Do you want your little wife to go over to Iran and get raped and shot?” He was kicked out because of his behaviour. Though he initially denied being at the game, his penchant for handing out business cards was his downfall, as he had given his card to someone attending at the game.

“I’ve been covering him a long time, and that’s what happens, after every single controversial event,” says Keenan. “This is his pattern here. Whenever there’s an episode in which [Ford] will come out looking very bad, he immediately denies that it happened at all and then comes up with a story to try to make it seem more charitable to him.”

And then there’s Ford’s ode to the great work journalists do for an event celebrating World Press Freedom Day. “The day serves as a reminder that violations of press freedom occur in countries around the world while journalists, editors and publishers are  harassed, detained, attacked and killed,” Ford said. “The day is also an opportunity to join with media professionals worldwide to reaffirm the need to respect press freedom and remember those who have lost their lives while on the job,” Ford added.

Fine sentiments. But once Ford finished his speech, he wouldn’t respond to reporters’ questions, saying, “I’ve got places to go, people to see”—and, presumably, more journalists to ignore.

Lesson 10: Expect the unexpected

No matter how powerful the press thinks it is, other dynamics usually play a much larger role in influencing events, as evidenced by Justice Hackland's ruling on November 26, just as the RRJ was going to press, that Ford's seat be vacated. 

Ford says he's appealing the decision. "The left wing wants me out of here and they'll do anything in their power to and I'm going to fight tooth and nail to hold onto my job, and if they do for some reason get me out, I'll be running right back at them.”

But if Ford has to leave office, I’ll start the campaign to have him join the journalism faculty at Ryerson.

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