Mayors who won’t co-operate with journalists

Toronto Mayor-elect Rob Ford boasts he’s returned about 200,000 phone calls to constituents in his 10 years as a city councillor. But when As It Happens called, suddenly he’s too busy to talk.

The CBC flagship radio-news show scheduled an interview with Ford the day after he won the mayoral race. But when they got him on the phone, Ford was at football practice. He coaches for Don Bosco high school in Etobicoke — they’re keeping him on until December 1. A transcript is available at the Torontoist blog and an audio recording is available on YouTube. The interview lasted four minutes and during that time, Ford interrupted host Carol Off to bark commands at players, admitted to being distracted, and regurgitated his campaign bromides rather than offering specifics on his vague promises.

Off made it clear on the air that Ford’s director of communications, Adrienne Batra, instructed her to call Ford at three p.m.

The next morning, Ford gave, by comparison, a whopping 16-minute interview on the John Oakley Show on AM 640.

Oakley’s show is known for its breakfast segment, detailing the latest news from the Toronto Maple Leafs and the rest of the NHL. AM 640 is mostly talk radio, including Charles Adler’s show, a conservative talk radio host who has, on occasion, subbed for Sean Hannity on the right-wing Fox News Network. Oakley’s show is famous for its Leafs Breakfast segment, which details the latest news from the Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL.

It’s also the same radio station where Ford had a segment for five and a half years every Thursday. The same radio show where he announced his candidacy. Ford and Oakley know each other on a first-name basis. In fact, they refer to each other as Johnny and Robby. Here’s an excerpt from their October 27 interview:

Oakley: “We know you as a stand-up guy all these years, who would’ve thought that at the end of the day the public would listen?”

Ford: “Yeah they were, thanks to you, Johnny, and I can’t thank you enough. Thank you very much.”

This isn’t the first time football has gotten Ford into hot water, oh no. It caused him to stop talking to the country’s largest newspaper.

In August, The Toronto Star published a story about an altercation between Ford and a high school student who was on the school football team he coached. The Star published a quote that alleged that the confrontation got physical. The student went on the record in a later story to say that it had not gotten physical. 

This prompted the Ford team to serve The Star with a notice of intent for libel. He flat-out stopped talking to Star reporters — unless it was in a media scrum — and he would not pose for photos either.

Robyn Doolittle, a city hall reporter, said in an interview with J-Source that, going forward, she and her colleagues will find ways to open a dialogue with Ford.

“Smile your way back in,” she said. “I think we’re just hoping now that the election is over we can all move on and get to work again.”

A large part of Ford’s appeal to voters is that he seems accessible. He boasts that he returns all calls from Etobicoke ward constituents and he makes it clear he’s obsessed with “customer service.” To back up his claims he says he was first to release his donor list. This respect has yet to extend to the press.

If he’s picking and choosing the media outlets he speaks with, can Ford really make good on his word? Shutting out journalists he deems unfriendly doesn’t project transparency.

“People tend to forget that journalists ask questions on the behalf of readers. Ford’s saying ‘I don’t want to answer those voters’ questions,” says April Lindgren, who worked at Queen’s Park as a reporter and now teaches at Ryerson University.

Ford didn’t run on great policy ideas or on grandiose plans for Toronto as a world-class city. Some of his policy objectives were released in YouTube videos, without a press conference and, therefore, without any media scrutiny. But he tapped into the frustrations of suburban voters who felt largely ignored by the core-focused administration of Mayor David Miller.

Ford’s message is simple: city hall has a spending problem, taxes are too high and, dammit, roads are for cars. He doesn’t feel the need to elaborate.

His plans seemed so simplistic that maybe he was afraid of being found out. Sarah Palin’s handlers, like Ford’s, kept the candidate far away from reporters they feared would ask probing questions.

Despite this, reporters will have to curry favour with Ford to get stories or risk losing their beat. If a guy from AM 640 is getting scoops that you’re missing, how is that going to look to your editor?

It should be noted that Ford isn’t the only one getting a failing grade in media relations. Mayor Hazel McCallion, Mississauga’s 12-term mayor (translation: she’s been mayor since 1978 and is 89 years old), for example.

McCallion is facing a conflict of interest inquiry launched after her son won a contract to build a convention centre complex on lands near the city centre. Hurricane Hazel also doesn’t feel the need to justify her actions or explain herself to reporters. She claims that reporters were hounding her about this issue and getting the facts wrong. Her long reign has helped her reached the stage where if you criticize the city, you criticize her.

On election night, McCallion told the National Post: “With the press… for six to eight months running a campaign against me, I think I did very well. It’s been very aggressive… I think it’s just fantastic that the people have turned down that negative approach and have given me an overwhelming mandate.”
In the same report, Judy Imerson, editorial director at the Mississauga News, told the Post that the mayor’s public scolding of local media was no surprise: “With Hazel very much you’re either on her team or you’re off her team,” Imerson said. “[If] you don’t get along with Hazel, she will do whatever she can to get you out of her path… She is very angry at anybody who gets in her way and anybody who doesn’t let her have full control.”

The New York Times just wrote about 2010 being the year of U.S. politicians letting their “contempt for the news media boil over.”

It’ll be interesting to see how both Ford and McCallion will treat Toronto’s reporting corps in the coming months. In Ford’s case, he’ll also have to build alliances in a fractious 44-member council to push his cost-cutting platform. And developing alliances is something he was never good at during his ten years as a councillor. (This story lists the projects Rob Ford voted against in 2010 and the number of votes he was overridden by.) The question is: can a lone wolf outrun the pack? Time well tell.