Tough questions for the Toronto Star -

Tough questions for the Toronto Star

Mayor Rob Ford is not the only one ignoring press requests



Something has ruptured in the Canadian media matrix. Things won’t just go back to normal, whether or not the video at the centre of the Rob Ford controversy is ever released.

Attempts to report on the Toronto mayor’s alleged association with hard drugs have been underway for months. Several local and national news organizations have been working to break the story. But Canada has tough libel laws and our newsrooms have their standards. Or at least those are the go-to excuses I’ve been hearing from journalists trying to explain why we all got scooped by Gawker.

The excuses don’t wash. Canadian libel law puts a tougher standard on news organizations than American law, it’s true. However, nothing in those libel laws would have prevented the Star from reporting what it saw. It makes a big difference in many cases, but a negligible one here.

The Toronto Star‘s Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle were perfectly able to report on what they saw on May 3. No law prevented them from writing that they watched a video of Rob Ford smoking from a glass crack pipe and saying a number of awful things. The only thing Gawker printed that a Canadian publication could not was its conclusion/headline: “Rob Ford smokes crack.”

The Toronto Star has been asked, by me and many others, to clarify some details about its coverage:

  • Why, after viewing a cellphone video that (as it reported) clearly displayed Mayor Rob Ford smoking from a glass crack pipe, did the Star sit on the story for two weeks?
  • Did the Star only run the story because Gawker broke it first?
  • Did the Star know Gawker had seen the tape? Was it waiting for Gawker to go first to lessen its own liability?
  • Did the Star offer the video owners $40,000 for the clip?

The Star hasn’t answered any of these questions, leaving its reporters to fend off the curious hordes on Twitter. Doolittle said they “obviously” were prompted into publishing by the Gawker piece, and were still trying to obtain the video. Well, what then, if Gawker hadn’t gone first and the video owners never lowered their price? What if Ford’s people got to it first? Would the Star then have buried the story?

It’s unfair for the Star to leave its reporters on the hook. We need a clean account from the paper. Perhaps one is forthcoming. Or perhaps, like Mayor Ford, the Star is hoping the tough questions will just go away if they ignore them for long enough. They won’t.

The Star wanted more than its reporters’ account. It wanted the video itself and negotiated unsuccessfully to obtain it. This important detail about the Star‘s ethics, incidentally, has been all but buried. The main Star story carefully stated that “the Star did not pay money and did not obtain a copy of the video.” Many have concluded from this that the Star was against paying for the video on principle, but a less prominent article by Doolittle and Donovan revealed the Star “continued a negotiation [with the video owners] that had already gone on for some time.” And that it “tried to find a way to obtain the video.” No further details on this negotiation has appeared in the Star. What else could the negotiation have been about, if it wasn’t about money? An all-expense paid relocation to Calgary? A new weekly column for the alleged crack dealer? The Star hasn’t explained itself.

The paper can’t be faulted for having wanted the video as part of its exposé, or for wanting a more in-depth and airtight story. But these concerns must be weighed against the public’s right to know what the Star knew. And they did know! None of the three reporters who have seen the video express the slightest doubt the man in it is Rob Ford.

Faced with a growing possibility of Ford somehow blocking the story and/or destroying the tape, Gawker did what any professional, audience-hungry news organization would: it published. The Toronto Star faced the same possibilities for two weeks. But its ultimate decision to publish seems prompted not by a need to get the story out there, but by a fear of getting scooped and written out of the story entirely. If the Star had set higher journalistic standards for the story that had yet to be met, these evaporated the moment Gawker posted first.

Some journalists are now wagging their fingers at Gawker for its “Crackstarter” crowd-sourcing campaign, which aims to raise $200,000 for a group of alleged crack dealers in return for the video. Paying a source for news has always been a tough ethical question. The idea of a $200,000 payday for a bunch of criminals is leaving an icky taste in the mouths of many of my colleagues. Here’s guessing that unclean feeling won’t stop them or their employers from linking to the video if Gawker succeeds in obtaining it.

And that’s what’s changed. Since Gawker blew this open, hundreds of individual Canadians, oblivious to our libel laws, are tweeting things about Ford that no news organization would dare. People donating money to the funding campaign give no quarter to the journalistic impropriety of buying news. They want to see the tape, they want Ford exposed, they want the truth.

Journalism must concern itself with speech laws, liability and professional standards. Above all, it must concern itself with the truth. When we’re the only ones unable to speak it, we’ve got a bigger problem than the mayor.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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Tough questions for the Toronto Star

  1. somebody seems very butthurt for no discernable reason.

    • lil’ Jesse is cranky and hasn’t had his juice.

    • Kevin Donovan paid for the tape within 48 hours of viewing it, believing that this would propel his career to new heights.

      The star ponied up, as they were misled by Kevin as to its authenticity.
      The star editors then viewed it and came to the conclusion that they couldn’t run with it because the quality was just too low to be certain of what they wanted to allege. However, they were now in the pot with Keven, so to speak.

      So, how to get the money back? After all, the newspaper industry is a tough business these days, one can’t just throw this type of money away.

      So, they concocted a story about how they could have this video but there was a price and they couldn’t afford it. So would Joe public put together a nice little collection and then the tape would be released. The contribution money would be funneled through this online collection to an ‘account’ and then quietly returned to the star in a few months. Kevin could not be fired immediately, that would reaise too many questions- so he will be transferred or quit this fall, long after the scandal has passed.

      Brilliant plan, except – I have a tape recording of Kevin Donovan discussing this with the star editors. I will sell this tape for a bargain price of 201,000$.
      And thus, the Rob Ford fairy tale continues…..

      • Clearly more comfortable in the anonymity of the interent than i am but bravo nonetheless #bluffcall #ironing

        • The fairytale is rather obvious isn’t it? Only a leftie reporter could possibly read it the wrong way! Maybe he’s understood this blog as evidence of an evil plot by harper to destroy what little credibility the star has left.

          Nahh, they’ve no credibility so that’s not likely.

  2. So the saying “There are always two sides to any story” holds true then, even on this day!

    Thank you, Jesse, for sharing your standards. I appreciate it.

  3. These questions were actually answered by Robyn Doolittle on The National last Thursday night.

    • Agreed.

      The questions were also part of a live online chat (that I sat in on) last Friday with Kevin Donovan.

      Here’s some of the questions and answers:

      Why did you sit on the story for so long, were you investigating or were you motivated by the Gawker piece?
      by MattThomas May 17 at 12:44 PM

      Once we realized that they would not hand over the video, we continued reporting out the story, using more conventional means to ascertain everything about Mayor Ford, and people who could shed light on this story. We were investigating, and are, but the Gawker piece put us in the following position: Robyn and I had seen the video three times. We had information about something that was going to become a very important issue. We decided to write what we had seen.
      by Kevin Donovan May 17 at 12:46 PM

      The Star did not pay the money for the video…. are they willing to pay the six figures to obtain a copy of this video?
      by Monikachmie May 17 at 12:43 PM

      We are not. I would like the public to see it, and am hoping the video is made available free of charge.

      by Kevin Donovan, May 17 at 12:46 PM

      It’s an interesting chat and the rest can be viewed here:

      http://livenews.thestar dot com/Event/Rob_Ford_crack_scandal_Live_chat_with_Kevin_Donovan

    • I heard the reporters on As it Happens on CBC Radio more than once, answering that exact question about “sitting on the story.”

      Publisher John Cruikshank was asked that and answered it again on West Block on the weekend. is the transcript.
      Maybe JB needs to look at something other than twitter once in awhile?

    • Thanks for your comments.

      I saw the National’s panel and have checked out the other interviews mentioned here so far.

      I stand by what I wrote. Some of these questions were responded to, but that doesn’t mean they were answered.

      PS @GFMD, I have an excellent reason ;)

  4. Most rival news article are calling the Star tawdry for printing the story. This is the first article that I have read which says that the Star wasn’t tawdry enough!

  5. Jessie looks to be totally out of the loop. Good thing he is not a professional journalist.

  6. Jesse, where did that 40K amount come from? I did listen to interviews where the reporters basically said that they went with the story because Gawker was breaking the news.

    Jesse, would you break a story if you were shown only a video tape and no other backup?

  7. Jesse, look up archives for The National– last Friday Wendy Mesley hosted a panel including both John Cook of Gawker and The Star’s Robyn Doolittle where she answered all of these questions.

  8. The impression I got from my watching, listening, and reading around
    all this was that The Star was never gonna pay but threw a number
    (40K) on the table in order to keep everybody at the table and
    talking … just in case the perps caved and gave up the tape.

  9. The Star may have not been tawdry enough, but it has ruined its own credibility by its jump on Ford attitude, no matter what. It’s like the little boy crying wolf. When the wolf shows up nobody believes. I have been appalled at the Star’s “get Ford” attitude ever since its boy, George Smitherman lost the election. What has George been involved in? Oh, a few little matters – eHealth, ORNGE, Stewardship Ontario. Hypocrisy knows no bounds. You can’t draw the curtain over one set of politicians and then be treated seriously when you criticize other politicians. The press must be fair or lose their credibility.

    • And who exactly broke the ORNGE story?

      Oh yeah, Kevin Donovan at the Toronto Star. Yes, the same Kevin Donovan.

      • And you know why? Because Smitherman doesn’t trump Deb Matthews who has now been promoted to Deputy Premier under Kathleen Wynne. When they couldn’t stop the leak anymore, the current minister for Health was Deb Matthews. There was no way the sister in law of David Peterson was going to wear the health scandals. Smitherman was conveniently thrown under the bus because he was not in politics at that time. Deb Matthews sailed through to a promotion.

        • I see you ignored the whole point of my response, that it was the Star and the same reporter who broke the story you claimed they ignored.

          Perhaps the ignorance you seek is within you?

          • Politics isn’t as straightforward as you imagine, sir.

    • Absolutely, and it’s not just the Star, almost every media organization in Canada is complicit in this embarrassment, this unethical and pathetic embarrassment.

    • don’t forget about Smitherman’s drug problems

    • WHAT jump on Ford attitude?

      They were reporting his acting like a blowhard and crook — what the local media is SUPPOSED to do.

      • There is a difference between selective reporting and reporting. The Star only reports on the mundane misadventures of the right. They will condescend to expose the Liberals only in the degree demanded. As mavri said below, Smitherman used crack but that was no account to the Star at that time as they were big Smitherman for mayor people. As soon as Smitherman’s transgressions threatened Deb Matthews, the new Health Minister who also happened to be David Peterson’s sister-in-law, the Star was quick to throw Smitherman under the bus. He was not involved in politics and it was convenient to expose it at that point. If Smitherman decides to run in a couple of years all will have been forgotten.

    • Interesting find. Can you imagine Ford’s popularity level if the video actually is indeed an act? And truth be told, all it takes is one person to organize it, one person from anywhere, to do it.

      I’ve been reserving judgment because honestly the case seems over-the-top, but the sentiment I’m feeling now is it’s going to be The Star with egg on it’s face here. Which, I do think is unfortunate, because we need reliable news sources, even if they are left-wing.

      I’m thinking Ford is just laughing at the whole situation, knowing the video is a fabrication, that he’s just going to let The Star strangle itself with this story. The longer it stays in the media, the bigger and bigger it gets, and well, with all the international media laughing at Ford right now, I wonder what will happen to The Star’s reputation internationally.

      • Regardless of whether the video is fake or not (and my gut instinct from the beginning was that it is and was a complete fake), the rest of the media, including this sorry publication called Maclean’s should be ashamed for not calling out the Toronto Star for being an embarassing, unethical, pathetic and juvenile excuse for a news organization. They have no evidence whatsoever, nothing. They have no names, no video, no nothing, just a grainy photo that shows absolutely nothing. And this is what has formed the basis for a non-stop witch-hunt. This is what has formed the basis for discrediting and embarrassing the city of Toronto – that none of the media in Canada are capable of displaying even the slightest bit of ethics. Heck, if you want to run the story, pay the damn money, and analyze the video, but for all we know the whole 200k story is also a big fraud. Some enterprising cafe-latte-sipping elitist progressive Toronto-Star reading communist fraud artist is waiting for his big payday. The Aaron Wherrys and other pathetic so-called journalists are enabling this fraud. In fact, they are encouraging this fraud.

        • Your gut?

          Oh, let’s go with that.

          Right after you tell us how “easy” it is to fake a video. Don’t forget the details.

          Your gut?

          • This comment was deleted.

          • Now it’s becoming more and more clear my half jest about you not knowing what evidence means was actually 100% correct. I will walk you through it –

            There is tons of evidence there is some sort of video. It is almost certain there is a video that has been shown to three reporters from two organizations who honestly believe that video depicts Rob Ford participating in activity most likely to be smoking crack cocaine.

            is this enough for a legal conviction? Hell no, and it never ever should be. is this enough evidence for people to be suspicious about the conduct of their mayor? Hell to the yes, as the kids say. Is it enough to reasonably demand he start answering some important questions firsthand, face to face, on the record? Anyone would think so. I am not one of those demanding a drug test, but I would be interested in the results of such.

          • Except that the video has been seen by reputable reporters, and a clean screenshot was made public.

            Thanks for coming out.

          • Your reading comprehension is lacking. The “screenshot” (assuming you mean the picture at the top of this page) is not from the video, and not even Gawker has claimed that it is.

          • And obviously you know how difficult it is to fake one… the hypocrisy is strong in this one.

    • You have a very broad and likely erroneous definition of the word evidence.

      Yes, anything is possible. I am more than prepared to listen to anything Mr. Ford has to say on the subject. But he’s not doing himself any favours with the way he’s acting.

      • Actually, if he is innocent then he will have completely destroyed the credibility of his attackers without having lifted a finger. Seems like a pretty good plan for an innocent man.

        • No, if he is innocent then the smart thing to do is actively clear his name. Not give his critics more fodder.

          • Nothing he can say or do will clear his own name, the left will never believe him and twist it all to equte to guilty…..that much should be obvious to anyone!

    • No, they’ve been reporting Ford being unprofessional and corrupt.

  10. “Why, after viewing a cellphone video that (as it reported) clearly
    displayed Mayor Rob Ford smoking from a glass crack pipe, did the Star sit on the story for two weeks?”

    Why? Oh, I don’t know, maybe they were doing what real journalists try to do…confirm one source of information with another source?

    You’re not a reporter,Jesse. You’re a columnist. You may not like the boring and awkward rules of reporting, but you don’t have to worry about them. Other people do.

    Why not go ask the Macleans lawyers what they would have adviced the Star to do?

    • OK, so if they were waiting for confirmation with other sources, why did they suddenly just go an publish after Gawker had run it? So they’re all about ethics, as long as their ethics are the lowest possible standard? Jesus Christ, even Gawker’s now saying there’s little chance they’ll be able to ever get the video.

      So the “ethical” Star has now run a front page story, with their only source being an admitted crack deal who was trying to get $200k for himself.

      Ya, that’s left-wing ethics right there.

      • So they’re all about ethics, as long as their ethics are the lowest possible standard?


        No, they are far higher than legally required – gold standard even. which is why, when they are scooped, they can deviate from these standards if they feel it’s the best way forward. They have a business to run after all.

        I can’t see it being a bad thing that they have certain requirements in place which they generally adhere to, but if they are scooped or in danger of being scooped they will run what they know. There’s no indication whatsoever that they have crossed any legal lines or even that their earlier conduct is “burying” the story in the traditional sense of the word (normally I’d defer to the author of the article on this point, but it’s coming to light he simply may – ironically! – have no idea how newspapers work.

        Good job, Star, says I. if you are wrong, please follow up ASAP but for now you are keeping on course.

        • So in your mind the most ethical organizations out there only keep a high standard of ethics so that they can be completely unethical when required?! Jesus Christ that’s one helluva strange concept of “ethics”! Do you even know what the word means?!

          • read. then think. THEN type.

          • Considering, Rick, that you think reporting on probable crime is unethical, yet apparently smearing an entire side of a profession FOR NO REASON BESIDES POLITICS is fine, excuse me if I think YOUR understanding of ethics is what needs to be questioned.

      • Would you rather they give in to chequebook journalism?

        And besides, right-wing media engages in utter slander on a regular basis (see their treatment of Jack Layton and Barack Obama). Where are your ethical standards THERE?

  11. By the way, I wish to commend Jesse Brown for being possibly the only ethical journalist in Canada, at least in this one instance.

  12. Caving in to a couple of dirtbag Somalian drug dealers? If this isn’t a perfect example of a full blown, out of control media circus, then I don’t know what is.

    • Caving in? Who’s doing that?

      • Mainly Gawker… and the people donating to the indiegogo campaign.

  13. Canadian journalists are, for the most part, craven, greasy, complicit and not very bright. Like that Mansbridge guy.

  14. Whether Rob Ford is a crack smoker or not – the international world is now laughing at Canadians – and Torontonians specifically. This man is an embarrassment to any political office. I don’t care who sat on what or why they took so long to break it – just bring on the information. The fact that the public is willing to pay to see it speaks volumes.
    Also, I don’t think Ford will have the last laugh. This ‘man’ continues to make Toronto look silly and overweight….Just sayin’
    By the way Jesse – I LIKE principles….and morals…even values. Let’s see who has what when it’s all said and done.

    • Yes, the world is laughing at Toronto, but it’s not Ford’s fault. It’s the lazy unethical “journalism” at The Red Star that’s responsible for that.

      • So that’s why NO ONE is laughing at The Star?

        • No, the reason no one laughs at the Star is because the vast majority of this country is inhabited by idiots – like you. Being left wing in Canada is almost the same as being a Tea Party Republican in the US.

          Also, he may have been referring to the liberality of the paper – red isn’t necessarily the color of socialism.

      • BTW how is The Star socialist?

        Act like a man, and show us you actually know what the fucking word means.

        • How is the Star socialist?? Really?
          How is water wet?
          How is Fire hot?

  15. To all those opposed to the crowdfunding campaign to purchase the (alleged) Rob Ford crack video: If the campaign reaches its goal, and obtains and releases the video, I fully expect that you’ll stick to your “ethics” and not watch the video.

    • Convenient that the so-called “video” in question is now “unavailable” according to Gawker. So if we’re supposed to believe their story, some crack dealer made a video of Ford smoking crack in order to sell it for $200k. As soon as the plan was about to be successful, the drug dealer flees? That’s so far fetched even an idiot wouldn’t believe it.

      • Funny how the “it couldn’t possibly be true!” crowd has changed their pitch from “now why would drug dealers put themselves at risk by making this video” to “but why would drug dealers assume there is any risk from this video”.

        [for my own part, I consider myself part of the it-might-be-true-and-certainly-raises-some-suspicions-come-on-mayor-answer-some-questions.

        • The point that every skeptic was trying to make from the beginning was that the “story” had a tonne of holes in it. And conveniently now, the only people who are profiting from it are the Toronto Star and Gawker.

          You don’t answer to false accusations, because that lends credibility to them. Every idiot knows that.

          • And people making up stuff don’t like to talk either because they spin round and round and sometimes contradict themselves.

            Like you did.

          • Actually, you FIGHT false accusations. Especially when the police are knocking and you’re losing your job over them.

          • No, you might fight the first 5 or maybe 10. However, once its clear that the aim is to burn you out physically, emotionally, and financially with a multitude of never-ending attacks then you step back and let them shoot themselves in the head (as they now are).

      • Equally convenient that you doubt the existence of a video that has had screencaps released.

        • What screencaps? If you’re talking about the photo that was released, that photo was not from the video… just goes to show your level of knowledge about this.

        • Heard of Photoshop??

          As evidence these days a video is almost meaningless, screen caps are totally worthless.

          But as long as it the right type of person under attack, you’d believe a crayola inspired drawing of ford’s guilt!

  16. The idea of a $200,000 payday for a bunch of criminals is leaving an icky taste in the mouths of many of my colleagues.

    Well, that’s good to know. So where are they? Kudos to you for taking the step to call the Star out on its curious abandonment of its journalist practices, but if so many of your colleagues are disgusted, why are they being so silent?

    Rob Ford is learning that sometimes it takes a steady drip-drip-drip of critics to address something that should be addressed. Perhaps the Star needs to learn the same lessons. Your disgusted colleagues should take the same step you did and speak out and shame the Star into addressing its ethics.

    • These “colleagues’ have jumped on the Star’s bandwagon right from the start and are still along for the ride

    • Yes, how dare a newspaper report the strong likelihood that the local mayor is committing serious crimes.


  17. Faced with a growing possibility of Ford somehow blocking the story and/or destroying the tape, Gawker did what any professional, audience-hungry news organization would: it published.

    I can’t believe a tech guy wrote this. Maybe you could ask Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise to beam you a copy.

  18. The Star did answer all of these questions. If this reporter bothered to read their live webchat from four days ago, he’d know that.

    • They responded. They didn’t answer. There’s a big difference.

      • So that’s why The Star has been a lot more forthcoming about this, than Ford has been?

        Oh right, you think that the “falsely accused” should never actually try to clear his name.

  19. A few things strike me as odd about the still image of Rob Ford with drug dealers

    Second, some aspects of the still of Ford with drug-dealers seem odd. See, Rob Ford has worn that exact sweatshirt before, and is even leaning forward as in the infamous photo.

    In the first picture, it does not look like Ford is wearing a white shirt under a hoodie – the white part appears to be an integral part of the hoodie. In the crack photo, the hoodie’s pouch hangs over the white bit, which doesn’t seem consistent with the hoodie in the first photo.

    Secondly, there is no sign of the hood in the crack photo. Indeed, we can see a shirt under the hoodie, which seems like it would be blocked by a combo of Ford’s double-chin and the hood.

    Third, when Rob Ford’s head is slightly forward (as in the crack photo), his double-chin spreads out (often wider than his cheeks), rather than amassing just below his chin. You don’t see that in the crack photo. For instance, see:

    Moreover, there was a clear effort to plant the seed of a Rob Ford substance abuse story before this broke. Sarah Thompson made her allegations – allegations that eye-witnesses did not corroborate ( ). All we had were unnamed people saying that the mayor was acting strange, and was thrown out of the event.

    In a few days, of course, we’ll see the video… or we won’t. What if the “Somali drug dealers” vanish? We will have convicted somebody of a pretty serious accusation based on some sketchy evidence. Rob Ford is a terrible mayor, a somewhat loathsome person, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had substance abuse problems. But he still deserves a fair trial in the court of public opinion.

  20. Didn’t see Maclean’s out there breaking the story. Just sayin’…

  21. In the U.S. the media has role to put checks and balances on government. Canada doesn’t. Just look at how many journalists have been appointed as senators – providing evidence there is a cozy little arrangement between our politicians and our media. The Star shouldn’t have sit on it – what unethical is that they aren’t reporting some serious flaws in our democracy and political system. Our democracy, if you want to call it that, does have problems – and the Canadian media is one of them.

    • Oh give it a rest. 80% of Obama’s administration worked in the media before he became President.

      As for flaws in our democracy, maybe you didn’t hear about the Council of Canadians losing their lawsuit, which was claiming widespread electoral fraud? It seems only lefties think there’s some problem with democracy, while normal folk, and most importantly – judges think everything is fine.

      • Here’s where I think you’re completely wrong. Canada is very, very corrupt. And because we have a global and national image as being very “docile” and nice, it’s allowed to continue. Also, most of the judges are corrupt as well.

  22. Still waitin’ fer da video, bro’.

  23. Let me see, 2 Star reporters follow the Mayor to a KFC and giggle like little kids watching him eat a sandwich, then a Star reporter is caught in the backyard of the Mayor trying to take a picture insidd his home, then according to a source he is drunk at a function, ironic isn’t it that the whistleblower got stopped and hahis licence lifted, wow! Now, a tape turnsup from drug dealers, an honest group, aafter all they sell drugs to all including kids, and try to extort $200,000 and they have disappeared. Oh my gosh! The Star is a leftist, socialist rag! If I were a subscriber, it would have been cancelled well before these latest attacks. Perhaps consider a anime change, how about this “The National Star Enquirer”