A look behind the scenes at Toronto City Hall reporting

For many people, Toronto’s civic politics are more intriguing than they’ve been in over 30 years. Rhiannon Russell reports from the CJF-hosted “Fear and Loathing at City Hall” panel discussion where reporters and columnists opened up and debated Ford’s boycott of the Toronto Star, the mayor’s now-infamous 911 calls and the daily challenges of working the City Hall beat. 

For many people, Toronto’s civic politics are more intriguing than they’ve been in over 30 years. Rhiannon Russell reports from the CJF-hosted “Fear and Loathing at City Hall” panel discussion where reporters and columnists opened up and debated Ford’s boycott of the Toronto Star, the mayor’s now-infamous 911 calls and the daily challenges of working the City Hall beat. 

We all know about the recent goings-on at City Hall. From boycotting the Toronto Star to being accused of calling 911 operators “bitches,” Mayor Rob Ford has been getting a lot of news coverage over the past few months.

The Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee calls Ford “the gift that keeps on giving” for this very reason.

Whether you love Ford or hate him, he sure makes City politics interesting.

Panelists at the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s “Fear and Loathing at City Hall” forum on Jan. 19 agreed on this, if not all else. Gee, Robyn Doolittle and Royson James from the Star and Jerry Agar, host of The Jerry Agar Show on Newstalk 1010 discussed the unconventional mayor, his inaccessibility, those 911 tapes, and the “Cut the Waist” challenge. Jackson Proskow, Global Toronto’s municipal affairs reporter, moderated.

Ford has injected some life into City Hall, and panelists discussed this throughout the evening.

James, who’s covered city politics since the 1980s said, “Rob is bombastic, he says what’s on his mind, he often doesn’t tell the truth…he makes promises he can’t keep.”

Gee agreed, saying he thought this is the most engaged in civic politics Torontonians have been since the 1970s.

Not surprisingly, there was much discussion surrounding the Ford and Star saga, which originated with this story that the paper published during the mayoral race in 2010. Ford maintains the story is false, and refuses to talk to the Star until the paper publishes a front-page apology.

The panelists debated, nearly cutting each other off at times.

Agar was dismissive of Ford’s boycott of the Star. “Welcome to our world,” he said. “As a right-wing talk show host, there’s a plethora of politicians who won’t talk to you.” For one, Dalton McGuinty, he said. “So what?”

But, James argued, the issue isn’t that the boycott keeps the Star’s reporters from doing their job. It doesn’t. “The issue is a mayor of a metropolitan city should — must talk to the press,” he said.

Doolittle said it’s a burden on her press gallery colleagues, who’ve been sharing information with the Star’s bureau since the paper’s reporters’ email addresses were removed from press gallery mailing list.

Agar added that he thinks the Star’s story is false and he doesn’t blame the mayor for ignoring the newspaper. “They started it with a story they didn’t have.”

James took a step back and gave a lesson in journalistic standards. “Your job [as a reporter] is to throw information out there for public consumption,” he said, pointing out the Star didn’t write that Ford absolutely, undoubtedly physically assaulted a player. The story is “bulletproof” he said.

The story’s reporter, Robert Cribb, wrote that some sources said there was a physical aspect to the altercation, while other said it was simply verbal. “You need multiple sources who you have reason to believe are correct,” James said, adding that having dissenting voices doesn’t mean the story shouldn’t run. In these cases, it’s important that both voices are included.

Though, after an audience question asked, neither Doolittle nor James said they knew if Cribb talked to the player who was involved in the alleged altercation prior to running the initial story.

For a year, Ford’s boycott went unreported by the Star. It wasn’t until Councillor Adam Vaughan created the Free Press and Democracy motion in September that the Ford-Star dispute was brought into the public arena. The city’s executive committee killed the motion.

Finally, James said, the paper had to take a stand. Chair of Torstar John Honderich published this front-page letter back in December, announcing the Star was filing a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner.

There are plenty of newspapers and TV stations in town, Agar said. “It’s not like the public is somehow shut off from information.”

As for if and when the dispute will be resolved? No one could say. Agar said he didn’t think there would be a resolution until the Star gives the mayor the apology he wants.

Conversation inevitably turned to Ford’s 911 call after Mary Walsh of CBC approached him on his driveway, dressed as her character, Marg Delahunty. Proskow asked the speakers why, since Ford disputes that he called the dispatchers “bitches,” as the CBC reported, the mayor hasn’t boycotted the broadcaster as he has the Star.

No one could answer this.

Doolittle said, “Everyone agrees, including the mayor, on what was kind of said.”  Yes, he dropped the f-bomb, but the exact wording of the call is unknown.

But it’s not just the Star that receives less information from Ford than they have from past mayors. The panelists discussed what it was like covering City Hall in general and the challenges that all press gallery reporters face, such as figuring out where the mayor is.

A now age-old comparison was made between Ford and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. Nenshi posts every hour of his day online, Gee said, while the press gallery in Toronto typically receives a blank page with a non-descript “meetings” typed on it.

“I can’t find him most of the time,” Agar said. “I think he should be more clear with everyone about where he is.”

Gee called him a “complete lone wolf.” Doolittle said his non-disclosure didn't bother her, as she has no interest in chasing Ford around the city. Besides, people often tweet sightings of him, so “Toronto is keeping an eye on the mayor for us,” she said.

Rob’s brother, Doug Ford, has proven to hold significant clout on city council as well. He is also similarly “bombastic.”

When Gee first heard murmurs of Doug Ford’s ideas for the Port Lands, he called up the councillor and asked him outright. Ford was enthusiastic and divulged his dreams of a monorail and Ferris wheel, and Gee said he felt like saying to him, “Why are you telling me all this? This is bad for you.”

Once, in a scrum, Gee asked Doug Ford what turned out to be a fateful question – one about Margaret Atwood, who’d been very vocal about the threats of cuts to libraries at the time. When Ford replied with his now infamous dismissal of her, “our jaws kind of dropped,” Gee said. “We knew we’d gotten a huge story.”

Proskow then asked the journalists if two days of media coverage of Ford’s “Cut the Waist” challenge was really necessary, considering the budget was to be unveiled later in the week.

“Isn’t encouraging people to lose weight a good thing?” Agar, who has joined the challenge with the Ford brothers, asked. “I’ve lost five pounds so far. I’ve got more to lose, but not as much as the mayor.”

Though critics speculated that the timing of “Cut the Waist” was to detract attention from the budget, Gee doesn’t think so. “People are fascinated by Rob Ford. People are fascinated by how big he is,” he said.

Gee said he stepped on the scale after Ford’s public weigh-in this week, and noted he was exactly half of the mayor’s weight. “He’s twice the man I am,” he said with a grin, while Proskow joked, “So, you’re half the fun?” in reference to the assertion Ford made last winter that he was “300 pounds of fun.”

James agreed with Gee that the story was legitimate.

Despite all the drama, Gee said reporters covering the city politics beat shouldn’t “piss and moan” too much. In fact, the drama might very well be beneficial to Toronto.

“City Hall used to be a sleepy beat,” he said. “Despite [Ford’s] restrictions, City Hall is a pretty open place” in that reporters can call up Doug Ford on his cell phone or sit in on the public executive committee meetings. “For a reporter, it’s a great place to work,” Gee said.

For more in-depth coverage of the panel discussion, check out J-Source's live blog from the event.