A Reporter In Crazy Town

Robyn Doolittle on Toronto’s debauched, depraved Ford era | by Paul Dechene

Robyn Doolittle

 

Robyn Doolittle
Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story
Viking Canada

Hard to believe the saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is still developing. It seems there’s a crazy new chapter unfolding nearly every week. It’s like some kind of gonzo serial crime pulp. The Mayor Menace: a debauched tale of crime, cunnilingus, jailhouse beatings, drunk driving, Youtube hilarity and subways.

Bringing the whole sorry tale to light has been the job of a cadre of Toronto city hall reporters, most famous among them being Toronto Star journalist Robyn Doolittle. Through her newspaper writing, she’s revealed not only Ford’s booze-and-blow-addled lifestyle, but also his ties to Toronto’s criminal underworld. And now in her new book, Crazy Town, she expands what we know about Ford and his similarly unruly family, then goes on to tell the story behind the story: how the skeletons in Rob Ford’s closet were shaken loose by years of dedicated, old-school journalism.

Prairie Dog spoke with Doolittle by phone about her new book, city hall reporting in a post-Ford world and, of course, the man himself.

I’m a city hall reporter, but I’ve never interviewed an underworld figure or watched a secretly recorded crack video. Am I doing something wrong? Or is Toronto’s city hall beat always this exciting?

It definitely is not. And it wasn’t when I got here in January 2010. I’d been covering the police beat before that and was sent here by my city editor at the time, and was kind of wondering: am I being demoted in some way? Punished? I didn’t feel like covering boring committee meetings and listening to community council debates and all that jazz. But yeah, quite quickly it took a turn. It was quite obvious there was going to be more happening.

Was there a phone call that you picked up one day and you were like, “Oh crap, my job has totally changed now”?

I’d say it was more of a gradual descent into madness. I mean, Rob Ford declared to run for mayor in March 2010, and I’d been on the beat about three months at the time. He immediately captured everyone’s attention. He’s a larger-than-life character. He’s often described as bombastic, colourful, controversial. And at the time he really was just that. He was not your typical politician.

And then he got elected. His campaign just seemed like an anomaly. When it came out that he’d been charged and convicted of drunk driving and he’d lied about it, his polling numbers went up 10 per cent and he raised tens of thousands of dollars overnight. Logic just seemed backwards where it concerned Rob Ford.

But up until mid-2011, it seemed like a pretty typical political story. It was at the middle or end of that year that I started hearing about domestic incidents at the mayor’s home. Then there were rumours of him maybe having some sort of drinking problem, being out on the town. He’s constantly being photographed, and posts on Twitter about buying mickeys of vodka all over the city. Then I heard about an incident where he may have been snorting cocaine in the back of a downtown bar.

That’s how I was already going down this rabbit hole. And it was a full year before the Star finally finished a story claiming that the mayor likely had a drinking problem, that it was impacting his work, that his staff wanted him to go to rehab, and that he had been removed from a military ball after showing up impaired. It was after that that I got a call from an individual who claimed to be representing drug dealers [and] that they had a video of the mayor smoking crack cocaine.

So that call didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of a year and a half, almost two years of work.

The Fords have really raised the bar on what you can consider scandalous for a city hall story. When they’re gone, that’s going to make it hard to go back to reporting on dog parks and budget hikes.

I think, yes, obviously this situation will probably never happen again. But one thing that I think that Rob Ford and this story has shown us is: municipal politics is really important. These politicians are the ones who have the most impact over regular people’s lives. They have the ability to spend money without going through big hurdles, like at Queen’s Park or in Ottawa. They can pass bylaws that will really shape how you live and interact with your city. And there’s a lot of money being taken in and spent, and you have to look at the people who are in charge of that and have that much control over your life. So I do think that this story has given us a new appreciation for our civic government and municipal [politics].

Through all of this, the Star has taken a lot of flak for this story. No matter how well-sourced your stories and no matter how crazy Ford’s shenanigans are, people still say the Star has an agenda. That must be frustrating.

I think of that as the brilliance of the Fords and in the book I write about this. A lot of people think Rob Ford is dumb. I don’t think he’s dumb. I think, especially when it comes to his political instincts, he’s really talented. He’s a human barometer of public opinion. Rob Ford’s strategy all along was to frame the media, specifically the Toronto Star, as an enemy, as a political opponent. A lot of the criticisms and the words he uses about myself or my colleagues or my paper in general are things you usually say about a political opponent. He’ll say things like, “the Toronto Star is upset that we’ve cut the gravy train at city hall.” What is that? Why would the paper be upset about that? Why would we get involved anyway? It’s a ludicrous suggestion. But he’s been very successful at it.

But that idea lingers and all it means for us is we have to do a better job of telling the public what we do, how we do it, the lengths that we go to be accurate and fair and responsible.

Has support for your paper improved now?

I can say from my experience with this, dealing with the initial wave of backlash through a lot of my reporting from 2011 to today, it sort of reached a peak in the wake of the crack video. But even the Garrison Ball story, when we said he probably had a drinking problem, the mayor came out and called us pathological liars, and the vitriol and hate mail and even death threats were coming in fast and furious. And they persisted until the chief of police said: “we have this video of the mayor”. And, as more and more details have come out and the Star’s been reporting on Ford’s connection to nefarious individuals, to a street gang known as the Dixon City Bloods, to his continued erratic behaviour, it does seem like the tide has turned — that people are not only appreciative of what the Star’s been doing, but appreciative of journalism in general. And there’s this renewed feeling of, “oh, yeah; this is why we need a really strong and healthy media in a democracy.”

What about all these forgotten characters in the story? There were over 40 people arrested in the Project Traveller raids. I imagine they’d all like to say they’re sorry, can they please stay out of jail and keep their jobs.

I think that’s something that a lot of people have brought up, that idea that this is part of the reason why when people say, “oh, you’re just being hard on the mayor,” or whatnot, you really have to hold him accountable to these actions. That he’s saying sorry doesn’t wipe the slate clean from all of the transgressions. He is the chief magistrate of the city. He is the CEO of the city; he is the CEO for 50,000 people. He has a hand in choosing who is on the police board. He has a say in the budget. He is the elected leader of this city and remains to this day. And he allegedly has ties to an illegal street gang that was smuggling guns into the city. He hangs out with criminals on an ongoing basis; he still has ties to a man named Sandro Lisi, who is charged with extortion in connection to the crack video as well as charged with drug offences. He and his brother have made the argument: “Look, he’s said sorry. Let’s move on.” And many people have pointed out that the individuals who were caught up in Project Traveller were not afforded that same courtesy.

Any advice for journalism students or, say, other city hall reporters on what you’ve learned through all this?

For me, a big take away would be a newfound appreciation for how little the public understands what we [journalists] do in our jobs. And we need to be so clear and open and transparent. We ask government to be the same, so sometimes we need to pull the curtain back and talk about our process and how we get to where we get and how we know what we know.

And also, always troll Twitter. There’s lots of information on it.

2014-03-20

One thought on “A Reporter In Crazy Town”

  1. With respect to Paul and other local journalists who work hard to report the facts, Robyn does something that nobody here seems to do, which is report the *story*.

    This discrepancy is partially audience driven. In true big cities, the public has learned from painful experience why nepotism and patronage are bad, and how small conflicts of interest are usually the smoke or tinder for the fires of corruption. Real journalists live for such smoke signals. Here, everyone has so much big city envy that they’re blind to them. Further: we’re all so willingly blind as to be supportive of pervasive abuse.

    That’s why people in Toronto know that a Mayor strong arming for donations is ethically abhorrent, even if the donations are for a good cause. Here, the politicians are considered heroes when they abuse public resources to enrich their private interests. Their success in exploitation is seen merely as “success”. It’s not hidden or shamed, but used to justify their election.

    But can we only blame the public, when there’s been little credible journalism to educate the public about what’s happening, why it might be wrong, and how it’s been destructive elsewhere?

    In mature cities, a politician caught sampling unearned luxuries is exposed, scrutinized, and sometimes, upended. Here, a mayor dipping into city funds to pay for his sports tickets, gambling losses, and VIP club memberships is protected by a circle of insiders who obstruct the evidence, then by another circle of journalists who excuse such a breach and praise it as some kind of global marketing accomplishment.

    Lawmakers in Robyn’s region made conflict rules, while here nobody even contemplates that the absence of these rules could ever be a problem… and no local journalist even prompts the question. Our journalists seem to know that with a few years of obedience, they too might get an executive class position at a government level, and that rocking the boat would kill their chances. If Robyn worked that way, she’d be doing communication for metro Toronto right now, tooling around in a new Escalade, and writing press releases about how Rob Ford just achieved another trillion dollars of imaginary savings.

    Here our local and provincial politicians support each other’s platforms, then brazenly accept patronage treats from each other. No reporter says boo about it. Multi-million dollar land transfers for nothing. Lucrative positions get handed out to friends, family, and insiders. Campaign donors receive huge contracts. Sure, local journalists might report the names and dates, but by virtue of such pillowy coverage, they provide a gauze of legitimacy.

    Here, grassroots movements like petitions are mocked with faint praise by our journalists. In more grown up places, such things are taken seriously – and with media support – they help instigate investigations and they topple corrupt leaders.

    When we experienced a series of robocalls more dishonest than even the federal Tory ones which flipped the outcome of a historic referendum, local journalists didn’t even report the fact. They made passing reference to citizen reporting, yet again thoroughly missing the big story. If we had a Robyn Doolittle journalist, they would have investigated the murky trail of why there was no budget and no public record or open voting on the robocall content and funding. They would have compared the mayor’s robocall statements versus the facts. But here? Nada. At best they seemed to enjoy the notoriety of being important enough to be manipulated by the best manipulators in the business.

    Robyn Doolittle would ask questions of how stadium land appropriation might be connected to prestige appointments, how campaigns are heavily funded by conflicted organizations, or how our mayor and council routinely sit on committees that grant them information and powers that can directly enrich their own interests. Doolite might might see the story of a mayor who voted on countless construction related decisions while simultaneously cashing a paycheque from that industry. What do our journalists do? They give him a cuddly nickname and show how cool he is playing his drum set.

    At election time, Robyn Doolittle might have explored the story of how the majority opposition vote was perfectly split by someone working for the city under the cover of a shadow organization. We get the names and vote counts, but no exploration of the *story* of what had just happened, or the significance of what it actually means.

    I know Robyn’s only talking to us for the purpose of peddling her book. But my hope is that some of her journalist sensibility might rub off and be absorbed by our local media.

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