Why people hate the media

In this case, Rob Ford is not to blame — at least not directly

This morning Canadian news outlets continued their quest to obtain search warrants used in Project Traveller, the investigation into a Toronto drug ring that resulted in 224 charges against 44 people. Included in the roundup were Muhammad Khattak (on drug trafficking) and Monir Kassim (charged with drug and weapons trafficking), men who appear with Rob Ford and Anthony Smith in that now infamous photo.

The media believe “the public deserves to know whether the warrants reveal any evidence that Ford may have been consorting with some of the alleged drug dealers.” But I’m starting to think much of the public wishes the media would stop consorting with Rob Ford. People are tired of the Ford probe to nowehere–i.e. is there nothing that will bring him down?

Quite likely, they’ve also tired of our interminable pride. This week’s sideshow is a perfect example.

On Monday, Canada’s biggest newspapers sat before the Ontario Press Council to defend their biggest stories about the biggest mayor of our country’s biggest city. Readers Darylle Donley and Connie Harrison made their complaints before the council. Donley took issue with the Toronto Star’s story about Mayor Ford’s alleged crack use. Harrison did not like the Globe and Mail’s long read on Doug Ford’s alleged hash-peddling past.

The publications defended their use of anonymous sources, explaining that unnamed contacts are sometimes necessary to break stories and produce good journalism. But the complaints elicited something else as well—editorial vainglory worthy of its own level in Ontario Press Council hell.

The Star ran a spread on its brilliant showing at the hearing, followed a day later by this bizarre Heather Mallick sashimi analogyThe Globe was no less satisfied with its performance before the panel.

I was once wary of people who sent me newspaper clippings defaced with their own ineligible screed (“F–K THE MEDIA”), but am now considering joining their ranks. The worst of it is not the chest pumping but rather the scorn for those who would challenge it.

Connie Harrison sat opposite Globe editor John Stackhouse on the second hearing of the day. “The little people,” she told the panel, deserve to know how journalists “do their homework.”

Harrison is not a staunch Ford supporter. She used to live in Toronto public housing and she’d prefer a more progressive mayor, “someone who doesn’t talk crap and just wants to make condos.” She believes the Globe should burn its sources—that is, identify those who spoke off the record in the Doug Ford hashish story, thereby (in my opinion) scaring anyone with important information away from ever speaking to a newspaper in this town again. “This thing is like an animal that’s been shot and someone needs to finish it,” she said.

Wrong as Harrison may be, she did not deserve to be met by casual disdain. Journalists rolled their eyes and I heard them snicker. On Twitter, writers offered scathing critiques of Harrison’s written complaint. When she asked the panel a question, one journalist uttered “f–king idiot” under his breath. (The only exception to this rule—as far as I saw—occurred when a co-author of the Globe piece introduced himself to Harrison after the hearing and told her he was very happy the discussion took place.)

The contempt was palpable, though no more so than it was sanctimonious. In the words of Globe and Mail editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse:

“We faced a dilemma: we could publish the story citing only anonymous sources, knowing the facts of the story are both true and in the public interest, or we could not publish at all. The latter option would have been journalistically and socially irresponsible.”

Somehow I think the world would have kept spinning.

Watching Stackhouse defend his paper’s piece as though it were the Magna Carta made me wish one of the Press Council panelists would lean into the microphone and just say it: “This isn’t Watergate. You published a story about a politician smoking a drug Justin Trudeau says he did by the pool when his kids were at their gran’s.”

Delusions of moral grandeur aside though, Stackhouse et al are right. Politicians—especially those like Doug Ford who plan to run for office in a “tough on crime” party—do not have a civilian right to privacy when it comes their own youthful indiscretions. And anonymous sources are usually necessary when bringing powerful peoples’ secrets to light.

But these things are not self-evident, and readers who wish to be briefed on the ways in which the news they read and pay for is gathered are not “f–king idiots.” The only people deserving of such a title, I think, are smug journalists who would label them that way. (Note to smug journalists: these are trying times. You might not want to alienate those still willing to penetrate your paywall.)

As to the most important thing, the accuracy of either story: with unnamed sources and no video, and no telling police warrants to speak of yet, Connie Harrison and media skeptics like her won’t get the certainty they crave. If it’s any consolation though, sometimes clues are enough—clues, for instance, like this one: Rob and Doug Ford were given more than 10 chances to refute the allegations against them in print. They took none.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.