Did the Toronto Star cross an ethical line by reporting on the-mayor-in-name-only's bad behavior during his recent rehab in the Muskokas?
The Star's public editor Kathy English weighed in Friday saying the paper had "no other choice." Public interest trumps the right to privacy.
English took to Twitter to offer: "Can anyone really expect that what happened in rehab stays in rehab? Rehab is no free pass to zero accountability."
But on the other journalistic dilemma to face the Star and the city's media over Ford, namely whether to boycott the mayor's invite-only presser upon his return from rehab two weeks ago, the Star and much of this town's supplicant media relied on city councillors - yes, politicians - to take a principled stand. Council voted 38-3 on Wednesday to ban the mayor from holding invite-only press conferences on city property.
This time, English rushed to Twitter to applaud the vote, declaring it was: "Democracy in action!"
I resisted the urge to hurl and respond by tweeting this cryptic rebuttal: "More like journalists missing in action."
English has, to date, failed to publicly address the Star's capitulation in the face of Rob and Doug Ford's ban on several sister media outlets, including NOW Magazine, as well as certain reporters from attending Rob's Hey-look-I'm-back-from-rehab infomercial, where he read a prepared statement and barred questions.
And she won't be, at least not in the pages of the Star. She was away on vacation and says the"moment has passed" to weigh in.
In an email response to written questions from NOW on the issue, English wrote that she was "truly on the fence" about how the media should have reacted to Ford's preposterous conditions.
Here's the rest of her reply, slightly edited:
"I get our publisher's [John Cruikshank] point that the Star should not be seen to be taking political action when it comes to coverage of the mayor. As he said on CBC Radio, the Star wants to cover the news not make the news and readers have a high expectation that we will be fair in giving Ford a chance to tell his side of this story.
"But, I understand [City Hall columnist] Royson James' immense frustration and anger with Rob Ford's machinations in regard to the media and his selective invitations to cover what was labeled a "press conference." Given that the mayor refused to take any questions on returning from two months away in rehab, this was hardly a press conference, just a media event. Albeit, one that no one could deny was newsworthy.
"Was it "gutless" [as James stated in a subsequent column] for the media invited to show up to report the mayor's carefully crafted message which in effect was, ‘Trust me. I changed in rehab. Now re-elect me?'
"That's a strong word and I would not go that far. But... I do think, as some on Twitter suggested, that there was a case to be made for the City Hall press gallery to collectively agree not to show up in the mayor's small office but to gather in the larger venue where press conferences are often held and make clear to the mayor that if he had something to say to the voters of Toronto he will have to say it to the entire press gallery that represents all of Toronto.
"If everyone could have agreed on this [boycott] and got buy-in from their head offices, based on it being a collective action, I expect there would be no issue with any one media organization being seen as unfair or biased toward Ford and the press gallery would have made a strong point.
"The media also needs to constantly make clear to Ford, to other politicians and to our audiences that journalists are not simply stenographers."
Of course, the Star wasn't alone in turtling. Many other so-called "news" organizations also rolled over like obedient, toothless puppies when the brother bullies barked their orders.
Ironically, the Star's acting City Hall bureau chief, Daniel Dale, was among those, along with David Nickle, president of the City Hall press gallery, who tried in vain to organize a boycott of Ford's infomercial.
Speaking on the CBC's The Current, Toronto Star publisher John Cruikshank said that, after consulting with editor Michael Cooke and other top Star editors, he vetoed participating in his bureau chief's proposed boycott because it could be viewed as a "political act."
Cruikshank didn't say who would consider a boycott a "political act" and, more importantly, he didn't explain why this would sap the potency of journalists just saying no to the Fords.
Cruikshank also suggested that he, Cooke and almost everyone else at the Star knew precisely what Ford was going to say at his sham press conference, which raises the question: why give legitimacy to Ford's cynical, self-serving teleplay by going to the damn thing?
When pressed on whether the Star would attend future press conferences if, for example, Ford banned gays, Cruikshank promptly morphed into an evasive politician. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.
It's clear that many Canadian journalists, particularly at Canada's largest newspaper, are much more comfortable confronting thug politicians and blatant acts of censorship with duct tape and signs, or by doing nothing at all.
Late last month, Toronto Star journalists herded together like at a high school assembly for a group photo in the newsroom.
The scribes stood silently while holding a piece of white paper with the hasthtag: #freeAJstaff. The display of unity was an act of solidarity with three imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists - including Egyptian-Canadian, Mohamed Fahmy, found guilty June 23 for allegedly aiding the Muslim Brotherhood in their reporting.
I suppose Cooke and his charges should be lauded belatedly for collectively offering support for not only their jailed brethren, but also for defending - albeit symbolically - the principle that journalists cannot be silenced or intimidated by petty, vindictive and brutish politicians.
But it seems Cooke and Cruikshank weren't especially anxious to reach for the blue duct tape and corral the troops again for a group photo while holding a piece of paper to denounce press censorship when it occurs in Toronto.
That it took 38 municipal politicians to show them how to emphatically stare down Rob Ford is appalling.