This month, Rob Ford’s alleged crack video has sparked interest far beyond the attention municipal politics usually garner in the city of Toronto. He's even gained mention on Jon Stewart, which is rare for Canadian politicians. In the age of click-bait-focused journalism there’s always international interest in politicians behaving badly (or dumbly).
John Cook of Gawker first wrote of the existence of the crack smoking video describing the events and said that getting the video from drug dealers was going to cost more than he was able to pay. While much has been said about the mayor of Toronto and his alleged drug use, very little has been explored in regards to the ethics of Gawker seeking public funding via crowd-sourced dollars to give money to drug dealers for a blackmail video.
There has been much ado about holding politicians accountable, but in reality not much will provoke great change in the mayoral office. Even if the video exists, the politics in municipalities do not operate the same way as they do in federal politics. Joseph Brean of The National Post writes: “A vote of non-confidence is meaningless for a mayor. Also, there is no recall measure in Toronto’s municipal politics. Councillors could theoretically vote as a bloc against the mayor, leaving him powerless to enact his agenda. But he would still be mayor.” To discuss the Ford fiasco and the journalistic integrity of those involved, I spoke with Steven Sandor, writer and editor for Avenue Edmonton and Meghan Murphy, editor for Feminist Current.
In response to whether it was ethical for Cook to seek donations for the Ford video, Sandor said, “It's important to reveal any misuse of the mayor's office, or if he has any addictions that could influence his job. But, and this is a big but, you do it through hard research, fact-checking, late nights, and exhausting your sources. You don't do it through aiding and abetting criminals. And you never pay for a video like this. Ever.” Murphy agrees that it is not good practice to pay sources but adds, “It isn't as though Gawker is propped up as some kind of model for good or ethical journalism in the eyes of Canadians. Most mainstream American media is tabloidy. We don't normally go to Gawker when looking for solid, thorough, journalism. Were the CBC, for example, to pay drug dealers $200,000 for a video (or attempt to), I think the Canadian public would lose trust and faith in the CBC as a reputable, ethical news source. Gawker? Meh.”
When asked where integrity should come in when dealing with a political scandal, Sandor replied, “It's scary that you have to ask 'where' journalistic integrity should come in. It should never be malleable. I've worked at papers, magazines — and there's been a stunning change towards going with stories before they can be fact-checked. The fact is, we don’t pay for info.” While journalists may pay cover for a bar or meals, “you do NOT aid and abet a criminal organization. Whether they are drug dealers with a video, or just extortionists, paying for a video is not only immoral, but illegal. And once a journalist goes that route, he or she CAN NEVER again save their credibility.”
By now most of the world knows what Canada has known for some time: There are many problems with Ford outside of his possible drug use. He has a history of scandal and problematic behavior including conflicts of interest, fiscal irresponsibility, his failed Cut the Waist Challenge, and refusal to attend the Gay Pride Parade. Murphy said, “This is a great excuse to laugh at Ford, but in reality, he's a really horrible, unethical person and we've known this for years. Why has he not been ousted for being a racist, sexist, classist, imbecile? He hasn't been held accountable at all. Not in the least. I mean, who are the jerks who voted for this guy?"
Sandor isn't defending Ford or his actions, noting that, “He has dodged questions, fired staff members and is facing allegations of improper conduct which are serious. But, I think, if anything, Gawker has HELPED him stay in office. By presenting the story as it did, purporting to have seen a video without backing it up, they have HELPED the mayor prepare his defence. We know from The Star that other journalists were working on the piece, and the feeling was that Gawker going public forced The Star's hand. Had this story been presented with all the evidence in place first time, we may have a different outcome. Instead, by being cavalier and, ahem, crusading, Gawker has given Ford some time to build a wall."
Gawker has reached its fund-raising goal and has announced that they are willing to wait a month for the video. Murphy said, “I think the video will come out eventually, one way or another, and that by the time it does it won't really matter anymore. Ford fired his chief of staff for suggesting he go to rehab. Video or no video, the guy obviously struggles with substance abuse and addiction. I think people want to see if because they'd find it amusing and because, after all this fuss, you know, people want to see it — but it won't tell us anything we don't already know.” Sandor pointed out the difficult situation that Gawker has placed itself in with the crowd-sourced funds: “This is beyond the ethics of raising money to pay drug dealers, this is simple case of not delivering on a promise. Journalists NEVER make promises. We don't promise results. We don't promise coverage. What we do pledge is fair reporting.”
“I feel pretty angry that we, as a society, let him get as far as he did," Murphy said of Ford. "That people actually voted for him, and that we didn't kick up such a fuss over what I consider to be much more serious allegations and incidences (domestic abuse, sexism, sexual harassment racism, a deep hatred for the poor, etc.) than the fact that he smokes crack.”