Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Journalism on Crack

I don't comment on municipal politics here. I think I've explained before in the past, but essentially I'm (indirectly) a municipal employee, and as a result I am biased, have access to confidential information that affects my opinion, and I don't want to put anything on the record that would potentially haunt me down the road. Of course, my political leanings are extremely easy to uncover, as I don't hide them at all, and armed with that information it should not be hard at all to piece together an approximation of my opinion of the current mayor.

Still, this post isn't about the mayor, it's about the Toronto Star. Thursday night, Gawker, a notorious gossip site, published a story that they had seen a video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. A few hours later, the Toronto Star went live with an obviously rushed story indicating that two of their journalists had also seen the video, confirmed and expanded upon many of the details, and claimed they had been sitting on the story for two weeks.

The story has exploded, for obvious reasons. Ford has effectively refused comment, and Gawker is trying to crowdsource $200,000 to purchase and publish the video. Even the right-leaning National Post and their firmly right-wing columnist Christie Blatchford (a woman for whom I have no love whatsoever) has fled the Ford camp (to the surprise of nobody, the Sun remains firmly entrenched).

What has also exploded, interestingly enough, is the debate over the Star's decision to run the story. The whole thing is tainted by the long-running feud between the paper and the mayor, but mostly people were left wondering why the Star waited two weeks to run the story, and why, when Gawker went with it, they rushed it out.

Personally, I don't understand the confusion. I have no insight into the thought process of the Star's editorial board, but I can suggest numerous reasons beyond not wanting to be scooped by Gawker. Perhaps the Star was still negotiating to buy the video, but once the story broke they concluded that it wasn't in the cards. Perhaps they were just waiting for another organization to break the story first, believing themselves to be too exposed to lawsuits if they were the only organization with the story. Perhaps they were still doing legwork on other elements, like looking deeper into Ford's past for a history of drug use, or deeper into the pasts of their sources, but once the story broke they felt they had to run what they had.

As for why the Star chose to leave their sources anonymous? Well, if you were dealing with Somali crack dealers for a videotape they were trying to sell which would incriminate an extremely powerful man, would you choose to expose them? It would put them, and the Star's reporters, at risk.

I have some issues with the story in general (mostly, how do we know what he was smoking was crack?), and I really, really want to see this video come out. Of course, I'm also conflicted by the idea of giving $200,000 to crack dealers. It's a crazy story in almost every way.

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