Mayor Ford addresses the media at a gas station, like you do.
As far as mayors go, Ford is one of a kind. When I started writing about city hall, my intention was to write about things that would affect Toronto decades from now. But the job demanded that I weigh in on crack and its alleged use. Still, scandals aside, city hall writers, forced to constantly read about Ford and see him everyday, can’t help but disapprove. Is this bias at play, or proximity? Many believe that not only is there a unified thing called “the media,” but that it conspires to slander Ford at every turn. This lumps every city hall writer into one easily rejected category. With an election in about a year it concerns me that the media can be written off wholesale. I will discuss bias from the perspective of a city hall writer.
If a scientist receives money from a tobacco company to withhold his real opinion and publicly proclaims that cigarettes are healthy, that’s an easy, unambiguous case of bias. Bias is more complex in journalism. Is it bias when a writer from a so-called left or right wing publication feels they can’t deviate from their publication’s opinion, lest they be fired? Or, is it bias when, left to their own freewill, the writer’s opinion invariably conforms to the publication because they were hired for their skewed perspective in the first place?
Some might call the Toronto Standard a left wing publication (ed: many would not), but my commentary has not been restrained in even the slightest. A cynic might reasonably believe I was hired because my outlook wasn’t expected to clash with the publication. It’s true that put together my articles about the mayor present an unbroken series of criticism, usually harsh, but this doesn’t mean I am biased. It’s not like my DNA makes me hate Ford, and I have decent proof.
I voted for Ford. I have made this confession in print, unsolicited, before ever becoming a city hall writer, and whenever I talk politics I’m deliberately upfront about this.
My time in OISE teacher’s college–the epicenter of radical left wing politics and a fetid breeding ground for left wing philistinism in art, and in general–scarred the hell out of me, and predisposed me towards voting Ford simply because he was against everything OISE. I didn’t like Ford, but to reflect my feeling most felicitously was to not vote at all, and I didn’t want that. I disavowed Ford well before becoming a city hall reporter, to be sure, but only because his buffoonery was powerful enough to counteract my hatred for lefty catchphrases. Ultimately, I have no pre-determined allegiance to the left or the right, terms I use generally but distrust.
I half-joke that the only thing preventing my complete disillusionment in politics is that only one leader or one party have the power to commit abominations at a time.
My opinions don’t fall neatly along left or right wing lines. I value my independence, my ideological aloofness, above everything. I know people who voted Ford and will again. I get why they support him, and I don’t think they’re crazy or stupid people. They are wrong, though. I bet the Ford people I know, and likely many others, would change their vote if they were exposed to a city hall writer’s diet of daily reading, not to mention, of course, what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes in meetings with city council and various committees. Exposed to this, approval of Ford is impossible. That those who watch Ford daily seem to all agree that he is unfit for his office isn’t evidence of collusion, but the reasonable response to proximity.
I imagine veteran city hall reporters have seen enough stupidity from the left and right politicians to become much more detached than the sad readers (not all readers… I’m sure you are lovely!) littering comment boards–“bleeding-heart leftards,” “libertarian Rand scum,” etc. I think the knowledge gap between people who do and don’t read the news is as large as the gap between people who read the news and people who write it. Of course, there’s variation within the groups (I’m not equating my knowledge set with people who have been on the scene for years), but really, you can’t read the news the same way after you’ve witnessed it unfold. Different papers cast exactly what you saw in different lights, or leave out something major (not out of malice, necessarily, but space). Political inflections match or don’t match the print.
“Biased” Ford critics couldn’t have asked for more ammunition, of course; try to recount all the ugly, sordid, and illegal things he’s been accused of since becoming mayor and you’ll find that what you have forgotten about surpasses by far anything associated with any previous mayor.
It’s often noted that the Toronto Star has it in for Ford, that they’re The Sun but from the left. Either they write articles on petty trivialities or have a suspicious amount of bombs to drop. In other words, their vigilant reporting, not necessarily the reporting itself, is a negative. Those who trash them might imagine the following editorial meeting: the boss says, “This mayor stinks, keep reporting on him!” Or, just as bad, for a different administration the boss says, “Back off of this mayor, I like him.” Reporters can’t be accused of reporting too much, just badly.
The public understands how a member of the media could distort or fabricate a story to advance their career. I don’t think the media is morally above falsifying news, but, practically speaking, the crack story is too elaborate to be made up. It’s beyond anyone’s capability. It’s also too buttressed to be phony, even if it has all but the definitive proof needed to charge Ford.
No, The Star and others have done excellent reporting on Ford, and even if the results are overwhelmingly slanted against him, it doesn’t mean it’s biased. The notion that “fair” journalism presents two equally strong cases is modern stupidity. A competent reporter does weigh all sides, of course, but only presents what their professional judgment deems pertinent. If they fail in this, if their article contains bad reporting despite their self-interested concern for upholding the publication’s reputation and avoiding lawsuits, then criticize it. But only then.
Otherwise, blame the times, not “biased” publications, when the news plays out everyday like an absurd farce. Remember this in the lead up to the election.
Jeff Halperin is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter @JDhalperin.