Tell us the truth
The people we used to trust to uncover truth in society haven't covered themselves in glory during the Rob Ford drug scandal.
The central operating principle of journalism is supposed to be verification. So far, our news media haven't verified anything -- other than the fact that three people, including two Toronto Star reporters, say they've seen a video that appears to show Toronto's mayor smoking crack cocaine.
The mayor said nothing for eight days before issuing today's carefully worded denial -- and so far he's getting away with it.
The media are starting to pay the price for their decision to go with the story without verifying it first. Momentum forward has been left by default to Gawker, a U.S.-based online gossip website that first broke news of the video and has mounted a questionable crowdsourcing campaign to raise enough money to purchase it from Toronto drug dealers.
Now, either because Gawker mishandled its negotiations with the drug dealers, or because somone else bought it first, the people who have the video are gone to ground. Gawker hasn't been able to speak to them for a week. Although its fundraising is within $40,000 of its $200,000 goal, Gawker editor John Cook says his confidence that he will be able to get a deal done is "diminished."
If he's right, the worst possible result may happen -- the video will never surface, and we will never know the truth.
I say truth is the media's job, and they haven't done their job very well.
The Toronto Star at least has tried. Its reporters Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle did a meticulous job tracking down a tip and viewed the videotape in question three times, making extensive notes. It would be nice to think that constitutes verification, but it doesn't. For one thing, the Star's editors, for whatever reason, decided that they didn't have enough to publish for two long weeks, and then changed their minds in minutes when Gawker went with the story. No one there can be happy that they forfeited their news judgment to a website and rushed to print, giving Ford a toehold to claim the video may not exist and people should know this was all part of a Star campaign to hound him out of office.
We need to ask ourselves why we don't just accept the word of two experienced and award-winning reporters. Both say there was no doubt what they saw. If they witnessed a hit-and-run accident, we would believe what they write about it without question. Why is this case different?
Certainly it's about politics and politics is polarized in Toronto. The mayor has a right-wing agenda, and the Star is left-wing. It's easy for bystanders to fit the facts to their political convictions. Ford's refusal to answer questions and the inability of the rest of the media to verify or refute his use of hard drugs leaves us at a stalemate, and all we have to rely on is second-hand reporting and speculation.
Perhaps it's because the story is just so sensational. How could someone clever enough to be elected mayor of Toronto be so stonehead dumb as to let himself be videotaped in a crackhouse making homophobic and racist comments?
Perhaps it's because Canadians just like to give accused people the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps -- and I think this is more the case -- it's because public trust in the news media is at an all-time low. That lack of trust is the public's loss in this case. For me, first-hand evidence by experienced journalists who are paid to observe and check things out should be accepted by default as the best evidence we have. The fact their paper risked its reputation and a libel suit to report a story that it cannot yet prove should count for a lot. Unfortunately, in today's skeptical age, that is not enough.
So it's distressing to see the media making their case worse. By and large, they have chosen to direct a frenzy of coverage into ill-informed commentary, not further fact-gathering. Some of it is, frankly, ridiculous.
Jesse Kline in today's National Post says there's no proof and he doesn't care what the mayor does on his own time, even if it's hard drugs.
"Ford comes from a long line of politicians who like to get inebriated once in awhile, because politics, like many jobs, is tough. People will always be looking to unwind after a hard day’s work — sometimes breaking the law, with a glass of Scotch during prohibition, and a crack pipe in 2013 — and politicians are no different," he writes.
The Toronto Sun's Sue-Ann Levy railed in this column against media "piranhas" harassing Ford and his family and dismissed the allegations as part of a Toronto Star "campaign" against him. She also said in another column:
"In my 15 years at City Hall I have never seen more distasteful behaviour by my media colleagues, Ford's opponents on council and by the leftist ‘yentas' in this obviously polarized city - all of whom appear to be rubbing their hands in glee, dining out on every delicious minute of Ford's latest controversy."
Shame on people like this who profess to be journalists but act like polemicists. Sue-Ann Levy is supposed to have the best contacts at City Hall, and she should be using them to break news. I don't care about the opinions of those who are paid to verify information but instead take the lazy way out and try to blame the messenger or excuse the inexcusable. There are too many questions that need answers, and we need more of the kind of hard-edged reporting the Globe and Mail published May 25, looking into the Ford family's history of drug use.
We need to know the truth. Hey, Toronto media: Do your jobs.