Newzapalooza is the annual Battle of the Media Bands. Held at the Opera House and raising funds for the Children's Aid Society, the event features members of the press rocking out in front of rowdy colleagues and a trio of comically hostile celebrity judges. This year, one of the judges was Councillor Doug Ford.
On Friday, November 2 at 10:45 p.m., shortly after Toronto Star band Holy Joe and the Principles wrapped up their 15-minute set, David Rider tweeted:
Rider is chief of the Star's City Hall bureau; Doolittle, Holy Joe's frontwoman, is one of his reporters.
The tweet spread quickly and explosively, at least as much as one can at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. The consensus reaction was jaw-dropped horror; the comment very much appeared to exceed even the usual standard of gross inappropriateness we have come to expect from the elder Ford. Even Angela Murphy, The Globe and Mail's Toronto editor, who only ever tweets out unadorned headlines from her own paper, saw fit to remark: "what the fuck."
And then something strange happened. Rider deleted the tweet. His subsequent statements, concerning the Holy Joes' victory for a second year in a row, seemed to be a kind of half-joking damage control: "Doug, on his way out, redeems himself - says he gave top marks to the Star's band. The freeze is over!" And "I think DFord's strategy of edgy comments designed to gain sympathy votes for us from the other judges, then scoring us high himself, worked." Immediately followed by, "Viva la Team FordStar!"
Even when faced with legal action, the Toronto Star, as a policy, does not unpublish stories from its website. Similarly, it is very unusual for a Star reporter (or any reporter) to delete a tweet that describes a public statement from a public figure. Nor is the Star, of course, generally in the business of helping the Fords cover their asses.
So what was going on? At 1:09 a.m., Doolittle brushed off the offensive pronouncement, tweeting, "Doug Ford was just being silly [with] the tight pants interview comment. So happy he agreed to judge. Helped us raise a ton for charity thru tix!"
But still. Unless the tweet was inaccurate, why delete it?
Rider isn't much in the mood to discuss it when I call him up at home on Saturday afternoon. He does, however, offer that because he wasn't attending the event as a reporter, he "just sort of second-guessed whether it was my place to write that." He had arrived late to the event and doubted his understanding of its etiquette.
Doolittle, on the other hand, is happy to talk. After confirming the tweet's accuracy, she goes on to explain why she wasn't offended, even going so far as to say the remark was "appropriate" in the boisterous, off-colour context of the evening. She also wants to make clear that in the weeks leading up to the event, she had been joking that she was "'Gonna wear some tight pleather pants, to try to distract from my lacklustre singing voice.' So I thought especially given the context of that and the spirit of the night, it was all in good fun. Of all the people, Doug and I know each other, and I'm the one that asked Doug to judge," she says. "So we also have that kind of rapport, so he probably felt more comfortable being a little harsher on me than others, 'cause we'd kinda been teasing each other going up."
Robyn and I know each other, too, and to most of her explanations, I respond with a variation of "Yes, but..." When Doug referred to the mayor's wife as a "Polack" on their radio show, it was also intended to be affectionate-but that didn't mean it wasn't inappropriate or newsworthy.
When Councillor John Parker made his relatively innocuous (but ill-advised) tweet concerning "hot chicks," the Star played that on the front page for several days. And does the fact that Ford's comment was more justifiable in its original context make the substance of his remark any less disgusting? The very form of Twitter tends to divorce statements from their broader frame of reference-but can that kind of extrication and parsing actually serve to illuminate the words?
Nor is it as though sexism doesn't exist at City Hall, as Doolittle has brought up on previous occasions. At a panel discussion on women in Toronto politics that she moderated earlier this year, Doolittle revealed: "I legit have a sheet taped to my desk that tracks the number of people who come into [the Star's City Hall] office and think I'm a secretary."
I press her on whether Ford's remark is consistent with, or representative of, what she encounters at work. "I've experienced a sexist attitude at City Hall as well as when covering police, and it was really irritating and I've talked about it a lot," she tells me. "I am very sensitive to those issues, and I was not fazed by what [Ford] said at Newzapalooza."
She also disputes the premise of the question, saying that, for the most part, City Hall is pretty good in this regard, particularly compared to what she encountered on the police beat. "Yeah, there are men that maybe think that they're living in the ‘60s, but that's not the norm. Sure, Doug Ford in the past has said some things that are worth writing about, but this I didn't think was one of them."
The question then becomes: did Doug Ford or either of the other judges make any remarks concerning the appearance or dress of any of the men who performed that evening? Doolittle doesn't believe so, but does recall that the female lead singer of Citytv's band, The Everywhere, was jokingly criticized by another judge for not wearing a bikini top.
She says ticket sales for Newsapalooza were up $2,000 this year, which she attributes to Ford's appearance. "And part of the reason that I asked Doug Ford to do this is because I was hoping he'd say something fun and/or controversial and be himself and give people the show that they were looking for. So, yeah, he delivered on that."
On the Sunday afternoon radio program he shares with his brother, Doug reflected positively on the experience, and appeared to express sincere admiration for the talent of Doolittle and the rest of the Star's band. (Listen in at 33:20 in this mp3.) But he couldn't help himself from snarking: "They're the only paper that would write a negative story about me voting for them for first place."
To which Rob added, "I gotta see how they're gonna spin this."