Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Song is Over: The Television Media and the Enabling of Rob Ford

Is it possible that the nightmare of Rob Ford's rule over Toronto is finally over? It would be reassuring to discover that the release of the latest video of our inebriated Mayor smoking crack cocaine and an audio tape of him spewing more invective about gays and women would spell the end of him. But Ford has been a cat with more than nine lives. His political survival in the face of mounting corruption, bad behaviour and substance abuse has been nothing short of miraculous – or has it been? Watching the television coverage of the latest scandal, that continues to taint the political process and one's belief in good governance, what began to emerge was something as disturbing as Rob Ford's actions. If crack cocaine and alcohol have been our Mayor's drug of choice, the television media has made Rob Ford their own prize narcotic.

Coverage from CP24 to CBC Newsworld, so far, reveals a sickening prurience about our mayor's disgusting actions. You don't see reporters talking about the ramifications of Ford's remarks and what they actually say about women, gays and minorities. By watching the news, you would think that Ford's only real problem has been his inability to stay sober rather than the things he says when stoned. Last night, on CBC's The National, a reporter even told us before playing the recent tape recording that the language we were about to hear might be offensive. (As if naughty language is at issue here like in grade school.) Speaking as one who doesn't believe in the 'dirty word' concept, how does saying 'fuck' become more offensive than the Mayor endorsing sexual assault when he says he wants to "jam" mayoralty candidate Karen Stintz? Why are we so worried about four-letter words instead of what he is actually expressing? By avoiding the content of what Rob Ford believes, the news media just turns Ford into their bad boy who essentially keeps fucking up.

From the very beginning, with word of the first crack video, the television media repeatedly delved into the wild and crazy activities of Rob Ford under the influence, and gotten more mileage covering his symptoms rather than dealing with the actual malady. If Ford were simply being found passed out in an alley, or pissing on a tree, or even causing a ruckus in a bar, we could forgive his actions and hope he gets help. But Ford hasn't been a sympathetic sick man. When he is one of his drunken stupors, he calls Liberal leader Justin Trudeau 'a fag,' and degrades 'fucking minorities.' He calls the chief of police a 'cocksucker,' and threatens to kill people. He hangs out with criminals and drug dealers in a city where young men and women, some being innocent bystanders, have been shot and killed by them. Yet, strangely, no one delves very deeply into how Ford's views and comments may play a role in all this. If they did, they might find that there are many who share his sentiments, but know better than to open their mouths. (Some do, unfortunately, open their mouths like the person who told author Robyn Doolittle in Crazy Town that Ford's personal life is his business providing he does his job and saves her money.)

Most of the avoidance of good investigative journalism is due to the way news and arts coverage, in both the private and public sector, has devolved into personality profiles and consumer reporting. The pervasive influence of marketing groups and consultants have slowly moved the news away from its analytical and critical base. In the private sector, it's easy to explain why this has happened because of the need to keep advertisers happy and the ratings continually high. But in the public sector, it's a more complicated story. Massive cuts to the CBC's budget have left the crown corporation thinking and acting more like survivalists than the innovators they once were. On CBC, where I used to work, you're even likely to see more audience friendly programming than biting analysis. The themes are now topical rather than reflective and the tone puts you comfortably in front of a virtual fire place listening to amiable chat. In that climate, how could you possibly bring a more in-depth examination of political corruption? So they settle instead for expressing the same shock and horror of yet another Rob Ford meltdown video. (The CBC TV show, The Fifth Estate, which did a superb examination of the Ford scandal, miraculously still manages to keep its teeth.)

It's curious how many times I've heard on the news today a running chronicle of all the things Rob Ford has said while wrecked. Yet I rarely hear anyone talk of why those views he – and others – actually hold are seriously considered as sound policy for running a city. Besides what that says about television journalism not holding our civic leaders responsible, what does it also say about our belief in the moral backbone of our politicians who proclaim that they stand for things? In this current election campaign, candidates have been deliberately refusing to confront Ford on how his actions degrade the city they're supposed to represent. When a mayor of one of Canada's largest cities, and with a multicultural population, defames homosexuals, women and minorities, how does he still have the moral credibility to lead that city? Where are the voices from the gay community, from women, from other minorities demanding some accountability from their city government? Do they not see that when the leader of their city endorses bigotry, he gives permission to others to go and act likewise. Since Ford continuously makes anti-gay comments, and refuses to acknowledge that gays are also citizens of this city, why isn't there a larger outcry from the gay community? We might have an annual Pride parade (which our mayor refuses to attend), but when does that pride come to count in the face of such appalling bigotry? The sense of inertia has become almost stifling.

Now that Ford has finally gone into rehab and disappeared (for now) from the public stage, who knows if his era is finally coming to a close, that the song he sang is finally over? After all, he didn't remove his name from the ballot box, so he could make yet another comeback. But even if what Rob Ford represented, in both policy and deed, came to an end last night, the views of those he came to speak for haven't gone away. There are still those who think and act from the same narcissistic impulses that rampaged unbridled in our mayor. Which is why the disappearance of Rob Ford from the scene hasn't cured the disease. It's only come to identify the sickness.  

**I may have been prematurely harsh towards CBC's The National in this piece written earlier today. Tonight their At Issue panel and the always reliable Rex Murphy nailed the real problem with Rob Ford and the city's enabling of him.**

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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