After months of denying it, Toronto mayor Rob Ford finally admitted this week that, yes, he has smoked crack. His confession came after the police got hold of a video that Gawker and The Toronto Star had seen back in May, showing Ford doing the deed. The old media newspaper and the new media website exchanged harsh words this week about the way the story was handled. Brooke speaks with Gawker's Tom Scocca and The Toronto Star's John Cruickshank about their difference of opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking of checkbook journalism, let’s turn back to May, when Gawker Media launched their subtly named “Crackstarter” project. Through Crackstarter, Gawker was trying to raise $200,000 to purchase, from the drug dealers who taped it, a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. A second tape, of Ford ranting, emerged this week, but that's another story.
Anyway, the deal to buy it fell through, but a Gawker editor viewed and posted about it and, in so doing, gave an opening to the Toronto Star. Having reported on Ford’s antics for the past decade, the Star had suffered legal blowback, so even though Star staffers had seen the same video as Gawker, lacking the physical evidence, it was reluctant to run with the story. Gawker’s Crackstarter stunt and post impelled the Star to go to print. Here’s Ford last May, when news of the video, but no image of the video itself, was published.
MAYOR ROB FORD: …that I have been judged by the media without any evidence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, Toronto police confirmed it had the video. And so, here’s Ford on Tuesday.
QUESTION: Do you smoke crack cocaine?
MAYOR FORD: Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine. Um probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that was settled. But a little media dustup followed, when the Toronto Star characterized its Ford story, including the part about the video, as an exclusive. Last weekend, Gawker’s feature editor, Tom Scocca, fired off a series of seething emails to Star publisher John Cruickshank. Scocca wrote, quote, “From day one, your paper selfishly, gutlessly and, above all, stupidly, tried to cover up the fact that Gawker had already reported the existence of the video.” We got together Scocca and Cruickshank, as reps from media old and new, for a Kumbaya moment. First, John Cruickshank of the Toronto Star.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: In retrospect, we shouldn't have put “Star Exclusive,” and I apologize for doing that, just as I didn't, in a recent column, where I was reflecting on the five and a half months of incredible abuse that we've taken at the hands of the Mayor and his brother and all of what they call “Ford Nation” here, I didn’t acknowledge that Gawker had published news of the video first and that that had been incredibly helpful to us.
TOM SCOCCA: Part of what rubbed us the wrong way about John's account about the Star’s lone heroism was that the only thing that changed, from the Star’s point of view, between the moment when they were sitting on this fact and they didn't feel journalistically and ethically ready to publish a story and their publication of a story was that we published the story. Nothing else magically happened in - that span of hours. And I think that that is what has been, in this case, a healthy symbiosis between old and new media, using their different strengths to achieve different goals.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: There is a real difference. We looked at ways of trying to get the video made public. The folks that we were dealing with and you were raising money for are involved in drug smuggling and in gun smuggling, and we came to the conclusion that those were not people we could be seen in our community to be giving money to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote in an email to Tom, “We had real skin in the game, as well as a large number of feet on the street. You broke a great story, from a foreign country, for which you bore no potential accountability, should it have proven to be untrue. Nice to be you in such circumstances.”
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: We were sued by Rob Ford during the mayoralty election. And we’ve been fighting that suit ever since. We’ve been banned from the Mayor’s Office. He refuses to communicate with us. He’s urged people to cancel their subscriptions, to cancel their ads. Gawker sits in a foreign jurisdiction, without significant assets in Toronto. And so, there’s nothing that could be seized in the case of a successful legal action. And also, if there were to be a legal action undertaken in New York, it would be under American legal conditions, which provide far greater latitude than Canadian law to report on public figures.
TOM SCOCCA: We caught no small amount of grief from people who were upset at the idea of our giving money to drug dealers, but we –
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: And gun runners.
TOM SCOCCA: And gun runners, yeah. But money is spongeable. [?] So, you know -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well –
TOM SCOCCA: We weren’t buying crack, so –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about this other point that Gawker made, which we've heard Glenn Greenwald make a similar point about traditional media, this tendency to sit on a story because you're not willing to take the risk and, and serve the public by getting it out there, I mean, assuming you know that it's true?
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: Look, in this particular case it’s required a tremendous amount of reporting. [LAUGHS] The, the reality is this guy is so Teflon, had we not kept up the kind of pounding and the, and, and the work that we did, this would have gone away, that either -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The video would have gone away.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: The – yeah, the video problem would have gone away. And I think, I mean, look, [LAUGHS] the, the man is still in office today.
TOM SCOCCA: The man announced that he's running for reelection. It’s amazing.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: He’ll try not to have any more drunken stupors in which he smokes crack.
That’s what he’s promised the people. So it’s deeply frustrating, in that respect. But I – you know, the information that came out confirming the existence of the tape –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm –
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: - was the product of months in court, getting this information, that, again, the legal system here in, in Canada works very, very differently and, and phenomenally more slowly than the American system.
TOM SCOCCA: One of the more incredible things, from where we were sitting, was the Globe and Mail rolled out this immense, deeply-reported story about the sordid drug-connected past of the entire Ford family. Clearly, this was something that they had been reporting on for a long time and just hadn't gotten around to publish it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, you see, this is another point, about the symbiosis of old and new media, with different constraints and ethical concerns, because if you don't feel you can publish a story, you can almost always publish a story about a story. So did Gawker give the Star and, to maybe even a greater extent, the Globe and Mail, some kind of cover for the reporting that they did?
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: Gawker tremendously speeded up the process by dropping their story as quickly as they did. I think, in fact, cover for the Globe came from the Star reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Right.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: Nevertheless, it was – I was as slack-jawed as Tom must have been, when it fell from the heavens.
TOM SCOCCA: The fact this his brother, who is a politician actively in Toronto, was a hashish dealer, that that was just sitting there and nobody had reported it, is nuts! It wasn’t you guys who were sitting on that particular fact but, my goodness, then there’s something – something is very, very wrong with - somebody's culture of responsible news reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now you’re dissing Canada.
TOM SCOCCA: You know, I think that that –
I think the constraints that John is talking about –
- you know, at some point, if you’re too much in love with your ethos of responsibility, you end up with press councils second-guessing your work and with politicians suing you.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: It really is a different country. We are fighting for free speech, but it’s in the context of a society that does think differently from your typical American social setting. And that reflects the way people think and are. So, yes, we're pushing always - I'm always looking for ways of importing American standards of fervor around free speech, but I do it in a context of a Canadian audience. And I realize that I can lose the reputation I have for, for trustworthiness, if I push too far ‘cause it’s not a New York audience.
TOM SCOCCA: And yet, you have this guy who’s your mayor.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: No, exactly.
I think, completely.
TOM SCOCCA: As an armchair observer of Canadian politics and culture over the last few months, it seems to me that there's probably a connection between this inclination toward right thinking and good behavior and the fact that this monstrous thug of a bully had - was able to seize power and ride roughshod over everybody. You know, in the, in the land of the passive aggressive, the truly aggressive is king.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: [LAUGHS] Look, I think Rob Ford looks a whole lot more like a Tea Partyer than he does like, you know, an old-fashioned Canadian conservative. I wrote today about the difficulty of journalists in Canada dealing with propaganda, instead of political speech. Do we have all the tools we need?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, thank you guys, both of you, so much.
JOHN CRUICKSHANK: With pleasure.
TOM SCOCCA: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Scocca is features editor at Gawker. John Cruickshank is the publisher of the Toronto Star.