Robyn Doolittle on Toronto’s debauched, depraved Ford era | by Paul Dechene
Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story
Hard to believe the saga of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is still developing. It seems there’s a crazy new chapter unfolding nearly every week. It’s like some kind of gonzo serial crime pulp. The Mayor Menace: a debauched tale of crime, cunnilingus, jailhouse beatings, drunk driving, Youtube hilarity and subways.
Bringing the whole sorry tale to light has been the job of a cadre of Toronto city hall reporters, most famous among them being Toronto Star journalist Robyn Doolittle. Through her newspaper writing, she’s revealed not only Ford’s booze-and-blow-addled lifestyle, but also his ties to Toronto’s criminal underworld. And now in her new book, Crazy Town, she expands what we know about Ford and his similarly unruly family, then goes on to tell the story behind the story: how the skeletons in Rob Ford’s closet were shaken loose by years of dedicated, old-school journalism.
Prairie Dog spoke with Doolittle by phone about her new book, city hall reporting in a post-Ford world and, of course, the man himself.
I’m a city hall reporter, but I’ve never interviewed an underworld figure or watched a secretly recorded crack video. Am I doing something wrong? Or is Toronto’s city hall beat always this exciting?
It definitely is not. And it wasn’t when I got here in January 2010. I’d been covering the police beat before that and was sent here by my city editor at the time, and was kind of wondering: am I being demoted in some way? Punished? I didn’t feel like covering boring committee meetings and listening to community council debates and all that jazz. But yeah, quite quickly it took a turn. It was quite obvious there was going to be more happening.
Was there a phone call that you picked up one day and you were like, “Oh crap, my job has totally changed now”?
I’d say it was more of a gradual descent into madness. I mean, Rob Ford declared to run for mayor in March 2010, and I’d been on the beat about three months at the time. He immediately captured everyone’s attention. He’s a larger-than-life character. He’s often described as bombastic, colourful, controversial. And at the time he really was just that. He was not your typical politician.
And then he got elected. His campaign just seemed like an anomaly. When it came out that he’d been charged and convicted of drunk driving and he’d lied about it, his polling numbers went up 10 per cent and he raised tens of thousands of dollars overnight. Logic just seemed backwards where it concerned Rob Ford.
But up until mid-2011, it seemed like a pretty typical political story. It was at the middle or end of that year that I started hearing about domestic incidents at the mayor’s home. Then there were rumours of him maybe having some sort of drinking problem, being out on the town. He’s constantly being photographed, and posts on Twitter about buying mickeys of vodka all over the city. Then I heard about an incident where he may have been snorting cocaine in the back of a downtown bar.
That’s how I was already going down this rabbit hole. And it was a full year before the Star finally finished a story claiming that the mayor likely had a drinking problem, that it was impacting his work, that his staff wanted him to go to rehab, and that he had been removed from a military ball after showing up impaired. It was after that that I got a call from an individual who claimed to be representing drug dealers [and] that they had a video of the mayor smoking crack cocaine.
So that call didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of a year and a half, almost two years of work.
The Fords have really raised the bar on what you can consider scandalous for a city hall story. When they’re gone, that’s going to make it hard to go back to reporting on dog parks and budget hikes.
I think, yes, obviously this situation will probably never happen again. But one thing that I think that Rob Ford and this story has shown us is: municipal politics is really important. These politicians are the ones who have the most impact over regular people’s lives. They have the ability to spend money without going through big hurdles, like at Queen’s Park or in Ottawa. They can pass bylaws that will really shape how you live and interact with your city. And there’s a lot of money being taken in and spent, and you have to look at the people who are in charge of that and have that much control over your life. So I do think that this story has given us a new appreciation for our civic government and municipal [politics].
Through all of this, the Star has taken a lot of flak for this story. No matter how well-sourced your stories and no matter how crazy Ford’s shenanigans are, people still say the Star has an agenda. That must be frustrating.
I think of that as the brilliance of the Fords and in the book I write about this. A lot of people think Rob Ford is dumb. I don’t think he’s dumb. I think, especially when it comes to his political instincts, he’s really talented. He’s a human barometer of public opinion. Rob Ford’s strategy all along was to frame the media, specifically the Toronto Star, as an enemy, as a political opponent. A lot of the criticisms and the words he uses about myself or my colleagues or my paper in general are things you usually say about a political opponent. He’ll say things like, “the Toronto Star is upset that we’ve cut the gravy train at city hall.” What is that? Why would the paper be upset about that? Why would we get involved anyway? It’s a ludicrous suggestion. But he’s been very successful at it.
But that idea lingers and all it means for us is we have to do a better job of telling the public what we do, how we do it, the lengths that we go to be accurate and fair and responsible.
Has support for your paper improved now?
I can say from my experience with this, dealing with the initial wave of backlash through a lot of my reporting from 2011 to today, it sort of reached a peak in the wake of the crack video. But even the Garrison Ball story, when we said he probably had a drinking problem, the mayor came out and called us pathological liars, and the vitriol and hate mail and even death threats were coming in fast and furious. And they persisted until the chief of police said: “we have this video of the mayor”. And, as more and more details have come out and the Star’s been reporting on Ford’s connection to nefarious individuals, to a street gang known as the Dixon City Bloods, to his continued erratic behaviour, it does seem like the tide has turned — that people are not only appreciative of what the Star’s been doing, but appreciative of journalism in general. And there’s this renewed feeling of, “oh, yeah; this is why we need a really strong and healthy media in a democracy.”
What about all these forgotten characters in the story? There were over 40 people arrested in the Project Traveller raids. I imagine they’d all like to say they’re sorry, can they please stay out of jail and keep their jobs.
I think that’s something that a lot of people have brought up, that idea that this is part of the reason why when people say, “oh, you’re just being hard on the mayor,” or whatnot, you really have to hold him accountable to these actions. That he’s saying sorry doesn’t wipe the slate clean from all of the transgressions. He is the chief magistrate of the city. He is the CEO of the city; he is the CEO for 50,000 people. He has a hand in choosing who is on the police board. He has a say in the budget. He is the elected leader of this city and remains to this day. And he allegedly has ties to an illegal street gang that was smuggling guns into the city. He hangs out with criminals on an ongoing basis; he still has ties to a man named Sandro Lisi, who is charged with extortion in connection to the crack video as well as charged with drug offences. He and his brother have made the argument: “Look, he’s said sorry. Let’s move on.” And many people have pointed out that the individuals who were caught up in Project Traveller were not afforded that same courtesy.
Any advice for journalism students or, say, other city hall reporters on what you’ve learned through all this?
For me, a big take away would be a newfound appreciation for how little the public understands what we [journalists] do in our jobs. And we need to be so clear and open and transparent. We ask government to be the same, so sometimes we need to pull the curtain back and talk about our process and how we get to where we get and how we know what we know.
And also, always troll Twitter. There’s lots of information on it.