Why Rob Ford should thank the media in his acceptance speech

Torontonians are bracing themselves. Election night is only thirteen days away. On the left, there are whispers of a mutiny if Rob Ford becomes mayor.

Yes, it really is that bad.

Ford has been able to position himself as the everyman-type: someone with no political baggage, who won’t be currying favours to friends because he has none, at least not on council (he eats his lunch alone). Some have started calling him the first Canadian Tea Partier, Adam Vaughn included, which may be stretching it a bit. 

Margaret Wente said that, “The large and solid Mr. Ford has all the flair, intellect and vision of a block of concrete,” and all that George Smitherman, second-runner up and former Deputy Premier of Ontario, has to offer is the guarantee that he is “not Rob Ford.”

And yet Ford is in front-runner in this race.

Toronto is in this mess for two reasons. First, none of the other candidates could present themselves as a suitable alternative to Ford. Second, the media cannot deviate from horse race coverage long enough to make this election more intelligible to voters.

Rob Ford’s campaign is “a self-fulfilling prophecy,”wrote Nabel Ahmed in Spacing Magazine.

When George Smitherman, the former Deputy Premier of Ontario, announced his candidacy last fall, he was poised to win. Today Smitherman is trailing behind a man for whom there is no dearth of bad press: drugs, assault, public drunkenness, heck, even viral videos on YouTube. Now Smitherman is routinely criticized for not distinguishing himself from Rob Ford’s platform.

How did that happen?

It happened because Ford’s campaign — his ethos — was strengthened by the bad press. In turn, he was able to control the debate.

In an interview with Global TV last week, Ryerson professor April Lindgren said that the focus on the personalities and criminal records of candidates is a sign that newspapers are trying very hard to attract readers.

So far, the muckraking had backfired. The editorials make Ford supporters even more resolute. As Ahmed astutely points out, the narrative that Ford is just a provincial lout just doesn’t stick. Rob Ford has a 98 per cent attendance record – do you really think he doesn’t know that firing city gardeners is just a token gesture? He isn’t dumb and his supporters know that. What they don’t know is that he may be more cynical than he lets on.

Still, to fans, his pugnacious style gives him credibility. Like maybe he’ll get something done at City Hall in his first term. He acts belligerent alright, but he wears it like no one else can. He’s the biggest, angriest and loudest of all the candidates.

The media is supposed to be the objective, reasoned observer that makes sense of the race. The question in this race is, who did they let run the show?

The  focus of this election is transportation, land transfer taxes,  property taxes, office budgets and the size of the municipal workforce.

Absent from the debate is any meaningful discussion about social policy. Because Rob Ford decides that these are the issues, his competitors and the media acquiesce: waste, decay, spending, customer service. Never mind that we’re in trouble when a candidate starts pulling out the citizen-as-customer analogy.

And anyway, Toronto isn’t broke. Torontonians pay lower property taxes and get better services for their buck than those living elsewhere in the GTA.

It would be unfair to pin a Ford win solely on the media – every couple of years people go for a candidate on the opposite end of the political spectrum. But if he does win, it’s hard to deny that the media played no part at all. Who’s job is it to write the headlines anyway?