What is it like to cover Rob Ford’s city hall? All I can do is quote Kent Brockman, the news anchor sent to report on a summer-camp uprising in the classic Kamp Krusty episode of The Simpsons in 1992.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.”
To the outside world, the Ford spectacle has been a jaw-dropping, gob-smacking, side-splitting spectacle. For those watching it from inside the clamshell, as the modernist council chamber is known, it has been both a delight and an ordeal.
Suddenly, city hall reporters find themselves at the centre of the hottest political story in the country, putting the Senate’s so-called scandal in the shade. Mr. Ford is the gift that keeps on giving, a one-man 24-hour news feed. But, at the same time, they find themselves accused by Mr. Ford and his brother Doug of spearheading a vicious conspiracy against a democratically elected mayor.
Here are 12 simple rules for covering the mayor of Toronto:
1. Don’t leave City Hall unless you have to
You never know what is going to happen. On one day alone – this Tuesday – Mr. Ford apologized twice (sort of) for things he had said, argued with a veteran councillor whom he recently knocked over on the council floor, boogied at the front of the council chamber to Bob Marley’s One Love, handed out a pile of new, modified Rob Ford bobblehead dolls to his lawyer, and received a visit from Santa.
On another nutty day last month, reporters thought they had a big story when Doug Ford held a news conference calling on police Chief Bill Blair to resign for what Mr. Ford called a politically motivated campaign against the mayor. Then Rob Ford blew him out of the water by admitting to having smoked crack cocaine then holding a news conference to apologize. Which leads to rule 2.
2. Ask the “correct questions”
Last month Mr. Ford was running the usual media gauntlet outside his office when he stopped and asked reporters to repeat a question they had asked him before. There was a confused pause as they grappled with what he was getting at. “Do you smoke crack cocaine?” piped up Jackson Proskow, correspondent for Global News at City Hall. “Exactly,” says Mr. Ford. “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine.”
Why hadn’t he admitted it before? “I wasn’t lying,” said the mayor. “You didn’t ask the correct questions.” And: “You guys kept referring to alcohol.” In point of fact, reporters asked him the correct questions many, many times since the first reports of the crack video in May. It became an awkward duty to yell: “Have you ever smoked crack cocaine?” at the mayor as he dashed from his office.
3. Learn the layout of city hall
Since the scandal broke, Mr. Ford has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the media. A more-or-less permanent media encampment has emerged in the blue-carpeted area outside his glassed-in offices on the second floor. Reporters and camera operators stand around listlessly for hours, then spring into action when an elevator arrives that could be carrying the mayor.
Experienced reporters have learned that he and his visitors often take a back stairway to the garage. When Conrad Black took that route earlier this month, after his famously fawning interview with the mayor, reporters rushed downstairs and headed him off before he got to his car. He said the mayor was a “nice man.”
4. Wear comfortable shoes
The mayor is surprisingly quick on his feet. You have to move fast to keep up with him and avoid being trampled by camera crews. Watch your head, too. Those shoulder-held TV cameras are heavy and the mayor sometimes runs with elbows out.
5. Learn to be patient
The mayor is not a punctual man. He often shows up late for scheduled events, such as this month children’s toy drive at city hall. But, in case he says something, you have to follow him everywhere, from his Mr. Fix-it visits to public housing estates to his appearances at neighbourhood parades and picnics.
Covering him is like being in the army. It is “hurry up and wait.” You can hang around endlessly waiting for something to happen, then all hell breaks loose. See Rule 1.
6. Bring chargers
Covering Mr. Ford means constant tweeting, updating, taking pictures and shooting video. Smartphone batteries can’t keep up.
7. Grow a thick skin
When reports of the crack video first came out, Mr. Ford called the media a “bunch of maggots.” (He apologized – not for the last time.) His brother Doug Ford recently accused reporters of practising “Stalin-era Pravda” journalism because they continue to ask questions about the mayor’s drug use and alleged links to gang members. “People are getting sick and tired of listening to the media. You are beating a dead horse here,” he said.
But, “the horse is totally alive,” said the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale, who would later find himself threatening to sue the mayor for libel. Mr. Ford seemed to suggest in the Conrad Black interview that he thought Mr. Dale might be a pedophile. He has since retracted that statement.
8. Never let Doug Ford out of your sights
Doug is the approachable Ford. He often speaks for his brother when the mayor goes quiet. Reporters watch out the back window of City Hall for his car and intercept him when he comes through the back door. He usually stops to talk and often makes news.
9. Control F is your friend
It helps when combing through 500-page police surveillance reports to find out just how many times the mayor was alleged to have phoned suspected drug dealer Alexander Lisi or got packages from him in suburban parking lots.
10. Teach yourself Etobicoke geography
This is the mayor’s home turf. Familiarize yourself with his favourite stops, like his local Tim Hortons and the Esso gas station down the street from his house. It was there that Mr. Ford answered questions in October about his pal and all-around “good guy” Mr. Lisi, who had been arrested on drug charges.
11. Don’t underestimate Rob Ford
It was just over a year ago that a judge ordered him removed from office in a conflict-of-interest case. He came back from that when the ruling was overturned on appeal. He survived the reports of the drug video, the confirmation of the existence of the drug video by the chief of police, the release of reams of surveillance documents and the city council vote stripping him of most of his powers. Like it or not, he is still mayor. And the campaign for the next election on Oct. 27, 2014 kicks off next month. Mr. Ford is already running hard.
12. Embrace the experience
You will never cover a story quite like this. The other day, Doug Ford sat down at a table next to a group of Globe editors and reporters at the City Hall cafeteria. In a playful mood, he wrote a Christmas card on a napkin that said: “Have a safe and happy holiday, Globe and Mail. Love, Doug Ford xo.”
“You’re going to be bored when I’m gone,” he said with a grin. He is not kidding.