But is it news?


Rob FordToronto Mayor Rob Ford seems to get more than his fair share of headlines these days, most of them negative. The stories that follow are full of allegation, innuendo and “unnamed sources.” Gripping tabloid stuff. Real time soap opera. But is it news?

Most of these stories seem based on a simplistic media prejudgment of the man. Ford: bad. Stories that belittle, humiliate, denigrate and ultimately crucify Ford: good.

And in this heated, increasingly toxic environment, allegations, gossip and rumour get given the same status as fact and build on themselves. Everything is sensationalized to such an extreme that it becomes impossible for the audience to pry even shreds of truth from the media frenzy. It’s like trying to apple bob in a piranha pool.

This, of course, one expects of Fox News, QMI and Sun News. The latter two Canadian media groups waffle between defending Ford (usually for no other reason than he is a Conservative) and wallowing in the mud with the likes of The Star, Globe and the NatPost. After all, tabloid-style headlines sell papers, and they don’t want to miss out on the public appetite for scandal, real or imagined. Dollars are at stake.

And, of course, some of these media outlets have political agendas and allegiances with other political parties. Reporters may also have personal or social allegiances they try to shove below the radar while they write their latest exposé, based on anonymous sources.

Even the once-credible CBC has gotten into the act, barely able to contain its delight while it roasts Ford over yet another allegation, all the while justifying its lack of actual fact by uttering stock phrases about not having seen the video, or the allegations being unproven. As if that makes a difference to the listener. It’s just the old nudge-nudge-wink-wink and no one is fooled.

All of which is depressing to me as a former newspaper reporter and editor. It grates on my sense of integrity and fairness that we get this sort of dreck promoted on the same level as news. It’s like putting such TV drivel as Survivor, American Pickers or Jersey Shore on the same channel as Masterpiece Theatre.

It’s almost as if the media has forgotten what its role is and instead just does what it sees others doing. Monkey see, monkey do. But that’s not what we want from, or expect from, the media.

In part, this is the path the internet and social media have taken us down: where immediate gratification, unrestricted opinion and unqualified commentary lead the way in popular culture. No time to check the facts, no time to confirm details or sources. No time to question what damage we do to the human lives, careers, reputations and families of those we are so busy – and gleefully – destroying.

In many ways, it’s not all that different from a medieval witch burning or a public hanging: the guilt or innocence isn’t as crucial as the entertainment value of the event.

Even if we don’t feel guilt for the damage we do to people by constantly exposing them to such unrelentingly harsh media exposure without evidence to support the claims, shouldn’t we at least feel sorry for them? Have some pity or compassion for their weaknesses?

What happened to Canada that it exchanged its sense of compassion for such self-indulgent thrill seeking? Does no one want to help the man, rather than just hurt him?

Don’t get me wrong: I have no affection for Ford. I think he’s a buffoon, I don’t care for his politics, or style, and I think he has mismanaged pretty much everything to do with the media. As far as public relations goes, he’s a walking train wreck.That doesn’t mean I have no empathy for his alleged substance abuse.

In all these lascivious and salacious stories about the man, the media comes out as petty, bitter, and vindictive. Ford is made to seem guilty because headlines that announce his guilt sell more papers. That judgment is made by people the mayor has slighted, insulted or ignored. Can we trust it to be fair, objective and disinterested?

If the stories prove true, he will get his punishment through the legal process. It is not up to me – or the media – to judge his guilt without proof of wrongdoing, let alone the benefit of a trial. That’s for the courts to decide.

The media, failing to fully crucify Ford, turned on his brother. As journalist Adrian MacNair wrote:

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.”…

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.

This is not the sort of objective, responsible and investigative reporting I associate with media integrity. This is paparazzi crap, not journalism.

Here’s another thing: it’s not a scandal simply because a reporter labels it one. Scandal means public outrage or upset. That can’t happen before a story is released. The media imagined the “outrage” even before the public had time to react.

But then, media integrity seems an antiquated concept. Who needs integrity when you can say pretty much anything you like on your blog or Facebook? (And don’t even ask about civil debate because any opposing opinion will be belittled and the writer castigated by the bloggers and FB posters…)

Almost anyone who wants to comment on Ford, any individual or group with a hate-on for him, gets some easy media coverage in print or on radio or TV. Doesn’t matter that what these people offer is mere opinion, and it belongs in a letter to the editor; they get the coverage that suits the media’s agenda. Or the reporter’s.

Whether anyone agrees with some councillor or ex-staffer whining that Ford should resign is not news. It is opinion. A special interest group whining about how he hasn’t lived up to their expectations is not news. It’s opinion.

Opinion belongs on the editorial and op-ed pages. You want to comment on his ability to lead, his size, or whether he should resign? Then write a letter. Write a blog post. Put it on Facebook or Twitter. The real media should not dignify it by trying to dress it up as news. It only discredits the media itself and continues the inexorable dumbing down.

For the last decade, the media has been flagellating itself in the eat-your-own-tail race to get the most likes, or clicks or page views by increasing the amount of sensational claptrap. We have made celebrities of do-nothings like the Kardashians (to the media’s everlasting shame). The loser in all this is media credibility.

It’s not just the national media or mega-corps. The trend to raise fluff over content, opinion over facts, and allegation over proof is horizontal: it infects all media from the local level on up. And it’s accelerating.

To keep viewers and readers coming back, or staying onsite rather than flitting about, the media turn up the editorial heat by sensationalist but otherwise un-newsworthy, content. When that fails to titillate sufficiently, they stuff their online pages with entertainment irrelevancies and celebrity trivia, hoping you’ll stay long enough to read about Kim Kardashian’s cat or Paris Hilton’s latest excursion into immorality.

It’s a downward spiral: people who want news turn away from popular media because it provides ever-increasing volumes of angry bombast, trivia and fluff. In turn, trying to regain its audience, the popular media ramps up the sensationalism another notch hoping to lure the audience back. The Canadian media has now raised Gawker on par with the Toronto Star in terms of credibility. Or lowered the Star to Gawker’s level (which will happily pay drug dealers $200,000 for an video no one has authenticated).

When someone else’s opinion matches the media’s own views – usually just bitching about Ford thinly wrapped in a “press release” to make it seem legitimate – the media packages it as “news,” and places it in a prominent place, top of the fold.

This mistakes visibility for credibility. It’s like deciding the best place to eat is the restaurant with the biggest sign. Or the loudest commercial on the TV signifies the best product.

What is newsworthy? That may be harder to define, but it’s like art: you’ll know it when you see it. And you will know what isn’t news, too. Russia sending arms to Syria: news. Senators using public funds for their personal and improper expenses, paper trail well documented: news. Tornado in Oklahoma: news. Gas plant closure costs taxpayers half-a-billion dollars: news. What someone thinks of Ford’s personal problems: gossip.

How the media is succumbing to crass chequebook journalism instead of maintaining some standards? News, but not likely the media will publish it, because it implicates themselves. On the Bissett-Matheson site it notes:

The mayor’s established pattern of distain for the media meant that he was less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. That’s just human nature.

But have the media been fair and ethical? And by media I mean the Toronto Star and the Globe & Mail. There are, or should be, serious questions about the ethics of both newsrooms. The Star’s reporting is based on a video a couple of their reporters saw but were not allowed to keep, and that apparently now is nowhere to be found.

I don’t know very much about video technology, but I saw Forest Gump in a video with John F. Kennedy and that looked real. So what if it was doctored, and then doesn’t show up so that determination cannot be made. Where’s that leave Rob Ford?

And now we have the Globe and Mail with a front-page story, based on anonymous sources, that Rob Ford’s brother sold dope 30 years ago.

Reporters and the media have a responsibility to keep the public informed about their elected representatives, and to help keep them accountable. But they don’t have a responsibility to share gossip, opinion and innuendo. That’s just muckraking. Get the facts first.

In the radio interview linked above, Jeffrey Dvorkin said it all when he commented, “It’s not so much pandering as it is self-preservation. You have to go along to get along.”

I suppose I’m old-fashioned enough to believe the media has a greater responsibility than just to feed the frenzy and make us all look stupid. Has “journalistic ethics” become an oxymoron since I worked in the media?

As a final note, the media will still have to deal with city hall even after Rob Ford is no longer mayor, but the levels of trust simply will have been eroded. The way the media is treating this and other stories (Joe Fontana in London comes to mind) has collateral effects: a widening a distance between all politicians and municipal or governmental staff, and the media, now and in future. Everyone becomes afraid of the media, learns to dislike and distrust it. No one will want to share with the media, because it could be turned on them later.

And all this could be avoided if the media showed more integrity, civility, and stopped trying to race to the bottom simply because there’s a bigger audience down there.