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Ford scandal an improbable case study in how the media might find their way back

November 10, 2013

By Simon Houpt

It turns out that news matters, after all.

For years, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Doug, have scored dependable political points by attacking the news media. They have underlined their disdain as hosts of their own chat show on Toronto radio station NewsTalk 1010, where they got to choose the callers and the subjects. (On Friday afternoon, NewsTalk announced the station and the brothers were parting ways, effective immediately.)


The news industry is a soft and easy target for populists these days, famously on the ropes because of plunging advertising revenues, shifting reader habits and a slow erosion in audience trust.

But something unusual happened this week: The crisis affecting Mr. Ford’s administration, and the way it was covered, began to look like an improbable case study in how the media might find their way back.

While the new conventional wisdom holds that audiences prefer news outlets that emphasize strong points of view – through columnists, pundits or even satirical takes – this week, it was the facts, first, that people wanted to hear. Papers and broadcast outlets across the political spectrum struck a strange, almost unprecedented, unified stand, knowing the cascading news developments would keep audiences coming back for more.

At the Web and mobile sites of CBC News, page views were up 20 per cent week-over-week on Tuesday, the day Mr. Ford made his startling admission of crack use. On Thursday, four of the top 10 stories there were about Mr. Ford. At the the Toronto Star, the first to obtain a 77-second video showing a ranting Mr. Ford, traffic shot up. (The Globe and Mail had similar spikes.) The Huffington Post said traffic to its politics hub was twice its usual average.

Some of the traffic was driven by unusually high interest from around the world. CNN, The Guardian, BBC and The New York Times all sent correspondents to Toronto. Anderson Cooper interviewed the Star’s Robyn Doolittle, one of three reporters to have seen the so-called crack video.

To be sure, not all of the coverage was straight-up. For three nights running, comedian Jon Stewart mocked Mr. Ford’s travails, even if he paused at one point to note that it would not be nearly as fun to eulogize the mayor. Canadian audiences could not get enough: The Comedy Network says The Daily Show pulled in its largest audience of the current TV season on Tuesday, an average of 275,000 viewers, hours after Mr. Ford made his stunning confession. Within Canada, YouTube says searches for “Rob Ford” and “Jon Stewart” spiked like stalagmites.

And with outlets such as the Star and CBC (and The Globe) competing for hourly scoops with Mr. Ford’s most stalwart media ally, the Toronto Sun, there was little need for their pundits to tell people what to think. (Still, there was plenty of that, too.)

It may be fitting, then, that the week ended with Mr. Ford losing the unlikely perch he had used to beat up on the media. Since February, 2012, the Ford brothers had enjoyed a two-hour block of Sunday afternoon air time on Newstalk 1010. The show The City had been a bunker for them, a comfortable place from which they could broadcast their message to supporters without interference. “You’re going to get the straight goods from Rob and I,” Doug Ford had told one of the station’s hosts last year, when the show was announced. “You aren’t going to have the media twisting it around like they’ve been twisting it around for the last year and a half.”

At noon on Friday, the station issued a terse statement: “NewsTalk 1010, Mayor Ford and Councillor Ford have mutually determined to conclude broadcasts of The City, ending with last week’s show. Of course, Mayor Ford and Councillor Ford remain welcome at any time as guests on NewsTalk 1010.”


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