When Toronto Mayor David Miller ran for office in 2003, he was an underdog that badly needed a break. His early campaign slogan got the media’s attention: Magnificent leadership, magnificent vision, magnificent hair. “The media interest about my hair was unbelievable,” Miller said at a speaking event in Toronto. Journalists ran with the idea and became temporarily obsessed with Miller’s follicles, going as far as to interview his hairdresser. That tactic came back to bite him when, after speaking at the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit in Seoul last year about what Toronto is doing for the environment, the media focussed on the fact that Miller had lost 50 pounds.
Miller spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Canadian Journalism Foundation‘s and University of Toronto’s Munk School for Global Affairs‘ Democracy and Journalism event on Oct. 12. (Scroll down to read J-Source‘s live tweet of the event). He criticized journalists for falling victim to the 24-hour news cycle, where the relentless search for scandal creates conflict where there isn’t any (think chipmunk costume rental) while missing the deeper, more serious scandals that serve the public interest. Miller holds up the Jakobek scandal as an example of the kind of journalism he wants to see more of, and questions why the Toronto Star would spend three days covering councillors Sandra Bussin and Adrian Heaps after they rented bunny and chipmunk costumes, which Miller says was within the rules. (In his thorough report of the event, Bill Doskoch writes that “such moves can be seen as contributing to a narrative about councillors who feel entitled to their entitlements, if I can borrow that phrase from David Dingwall.“)
Miller spoke at length about what he hopes will be part of his legacy, but worries they will be forgotten because the media has “simplified” big issue stories: the face of the sprawling, multi-year Transit City plan has become reduced to that iconic photo of a sleeping TTC guard (Miller criticized the photographer for not making sure he was “really sleeping” and not just ill). He also criticized the media for running sensationalized stories about violence and guns in the city. “I spent 45 minutes looking for a front-page newspaper story on crime going down. Couldn’t find one. But the fact is crime is down by half.”
He showed a Maclean’s photo illustration with an open-mouthed Mayor inside a garbage can, Oscar the Grouch-style, with headline: “Toronto Stinks.” Miller says that, after all his work with the environment, all people remember is the stench of garbage strikes. In a tweet, @bryan_leblanc wrote “Doing your job is not news. Giant screw-ups are. Man, I wish he would quit whining.”
Moderator and Munk School director Janice Stein asked audience members to respond to Miller’s criticisms of the media. Steve Paikin agreed with Miller, saying it’s why he loves his job at TVO’s The Agenda, which is a non-profit.
Edward Greenspon, former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail and now a Toronto Star executive, admitted that cutbacks have had an effect on coverage, but points out that “we’ve never been good at ‘trend’ stories,” which was true long before Miller took office.
Miller says that the major reason he’s not running for a third term as Toronto’s mayor is that he wants to spend time with his family, a perk the mayor seldom enjoyed. He was in British Columbia for his daughter’s birthday when a propane plant explosion rocked downtown Toronto, which the media later criticized him for. While he says the coverage of the explosion and the evacuation of 40,000 Torontonians was some of the best on-the-ground, tough-questioning journalism he’s ever seen, he thinks the criticism of his family time was unwarranted.
Miller worries about the long-term effect the loss of deep, serious journalism will have on Canadians. He says we already suffer from a “collective amnesia” that prevents us from connecting everyday news events with the bigger picture —- and that means less informed citizens, and less informed votes. To prove his point, Miller wonders if regular Canadians will realize the significance of having, for the first time, lost its long-standing seat on the 12-member UN security council, the organization’s highest-ranking panel of decision makers. “After tomorrow, will anybody remember that, for the first time, Canada lost the vote to get a security council seat?”
Below is a transcript of the live tweet coverage of the event, including tweets from Student’s Lounge editor Alexandra Bosanac and politics writer Jonathan Goldsbie. (Click on “more” at the bottom to read the whole feed, which includes tweets from Steve Paikin, Bill Doskoch and others).