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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, December 21, 2013

How the Toronto Star is Ensuring Rob Ford's Re-election

An interesting take on the so-called Snowden Effect was brought to my attention.

Written by Reed Richardson and Eric Alterman and first appearing in The Nation, the article claims despite efforts by mainstream media to reveal how the War on Terrorism has morphed into a war on privacy, the public has thus far responded with a large "ho-hum." In a post 9/11 world, the public was still prepared to trust governments to protect them, even at the cost of some of their personal liberties.

Only when Edward Snowden began his astonishing revelations did the public and Washington elites take notice. Other media have reported this for months. But operating almost as a lone whistleblower, Snowden's leaks seemed to be the tipping point. Politicians and media organizations, libertarians and civil liberties advocates all agree that the loss of freedom through technology has now gone too far.

Snowden made the difference. But what caused the difference in responses? Why did the strong reporting from establishment media not work in this case?

Richardson observes that the establishment media all too often adopts an indifferent attitude toward how the public connects with what it publishes, content to merely be conveyors of information rather than providers of context, chroniclers of the powerful instead of champions of the powerless. That no doubt contributes to why the public mistrusts the press so much.

This brings to mind Toronto's media-mayoral complex. Rob Ford's multiple gaffes and dubious associations have raised the ire of many journalists. In particular, the Toronto Star has been persistent - even obsessive - in going after the mayor, as much for his goofiness and for his possibly criminal comportment.

To no avail.

Latest polls show that almost half the citizens still support him, although about the same number say they are prepared to vote for someone else in next October's municipal elections.

Why have the efforts of the media failed to lower Ford's standing with the voters?

First, there is the entertainment factor. Toronto politics were for many years, the preserve of process. Elites known as the FOOFs (Fine Old Ontario Families) kept the lid on disgruntled elements. When Rob Ford came along, the FOOFs instinct for political continuity failed. Ford's election meant that the old arrangements between classes and the media were over. Television and the internet have made Rob Ford, truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Second, in an informal survey of supposedly "right-thinking" citizens, I get a sense that in some undefined ways, Rob Ford is good for Toronto, even if he is the butt of late-night TV. He may yet lose the election, but probably not by much, the Toronto Star's efforts notwithstanding. If anything, I detect a sense that it's the Star's credibility that may be slipping, even as Ford's popularity keeps growing.

Third, as Richardson and Alterman note about the media, just being a conveyor of information, does not automatically result in the creation of an outraged electorate.

The Toronto Star and other local media may think this is still 1970 and believe that giving the people what they need to know is enough to create social and political change. Apparently, not so.

In a new media environment (or one toward which we seem to be heading), the media may be required to do more. What that "more" is, is hard to imagine. But it could take media organization well out of their tradition roles as witnesses to events and more into the role of agents for change.

Edward Snowden and his colleague Glenn Greenwald understand this more clearly than do the New York Times or the Toronto Star.

Some public radio stations in the US have embraced this role as community activists, to their great credit. But in Canada, the Ford factor has got the media paralyzed - stuck in a pre-digital mode and unable to act in a way that can truly engage citizens who continue to distrust the media.

At the same time, journalists are frustrated with the public's ho-hum response to their reporting. At the same time, the public finds their media to be increasingly irrelevant. It just may take the actions of a local Edward Snowden to finally dislodge Rob Ford.

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