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