Less than half an hour after Rob Ford knocked over councillor Pam McConnell during a city council meeting Monday afternoon, a reporter at the New York-based viral-oriented website BuzzFeed tweeted a four-second video of the incident; tens of thousands watched it on the site. Around this time, a user of gifsound.com synched up the same video to the chorus of Miley Cyrus’s hit Wrecking Ball, so that the mayor’s collision with Ms. McConnell seemed as if it had been choreographed to music.
At about the same time, over on Fox News, anchor Shepherd Smith began a report by quipping, “The crack-smoking mayor of Toronto has just done it again!” and then joked that the councillor, who appeared to grab onto the mayor as she fell, might have been saying: ‘Whoa! Mr. Mayor! There’s no crack pipe under there!’ Huffington Post jumped into the fray, and Twitter exploded in disbelief.
If Rob Ford and his brother Doug had hoped to change the channel by giving interviews over the weekend to U.S. media they considered friendlier than Canadian outlets, including Fox News, NBC, and CNN, they failed to recognize how little control any one of those now has over the news agenda. Viewers and readers will decide what they want to talk about, and play with; to a great extent, media outlets need to feed that desire if they want to stay a part of the conversation.
Case in point: On Friday afternoon, Doug Ford invited CNN reporter Bill Weir up from New York City to conduct an exclusive in-person interview with his brother the following day. But shortly after a portion of the encounter aired Monday morning, social media began dissecting it with rabid glee: tweeters and bloggers noted the moment when the mayor swore on camera, in front of children; they mocked his repeated insistence that the reason he hadn’t confessed to smoking crack is because no reporter had ever asked him “the right question”; they were aghast at his claim of being “the best father around.”
And they let everyone else know, just as they did all afternoon during the extraordinary council meeting.
“Because of Twitter and because of Facebook, and especially because of YouTube, and because all of these local outlets in Canada have their own video feed, we here can be watching those things,” noted Lisa Tozzi, the news editor of BuzzFeed. “Years ago, before all of that, this might be something that gathered steam for awhile and then appeared on the front page of the Times, like, ‘What’s going on with Canada?’ But now, we can all view it in real-time.”
The challenge for a politician in that environment is to feed the social media beast, an easily bored animal with a bottomless desire for ever more outrageous antics, without getting consumed.
Mr. Ford’s story comprises a unique alchemy of elements that have so far transformed him into a golden global superstar. But other scandalized politicians have burned brightly and quickly turned to ashes; Mr. Ford continues to feed his own flame with unpredictable behaviour, such as his denial of wanting to perform oral sex on an aide.
“That was so incredible,” said Taegan Goddard, who runs the Washington D.C.-oriented blog Political Wire.
“Nobody asked him that question, he volunteered, which is so remarkable. It’s not like he was under duress. That was one of the great statements of all time. I called it the Quote of the Year on Political Wire. You can’t think of a politician saying anything that’s going to top that this year.”
Mr. Goddard said comments like that have made Mr. Ford the reality star he has become. “If you compare it to the Anthony Weiner story, which was equally bizarre, for a few days people were interested. But after a few days, the story just died, and putting anything more up on Political Wire wasn’t going to attract any more attention. People had had their fill of it.”
But when Mr. Ford suggests, as he did to Fox News’s John Roberts, that he might run for prime minister, that drives traffic. “That’s fabulous stuff,” said Mr. Goddard. “And the fact that, the only problem he has is not a drug problem, it’s probably a weight problem. That was the other great quote.”
BuzzFeed’s Lisa Tozzi suggested that Mr. Ford is benefiting from a relative vacuum in U.S. politics. “At this time, we don’t necessarily have a high-profile Rob Fordesque figure,” she said. “You’re filling the void.”
She added that, while those in the U.S. rarely pay much attention to Canadian events, in this case the distance may be part of the attraction. “I think it’s kind of a circus, and because it doesn’t necessarily have a direct impact on our lives, maybe we can watch it with less horror and more fascination.”
KALEIGH ROGERS ANALYZES ROB FORD’S BIG DAY ON TV
Bill Weir, a reporter for Anderson Cooper 360, went to a Toronto Community Housing Corp. apartment complex with Mayor Rob Ford and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, to meet their supporters and interview the pair.
- Revelation: Mr. Ford said he doesn’t really think of himself as the mayor of Toronto. “Here’s the thing: I don’t look as myself as the mayor. I look at myself as just a normal, regular person.”
- Most surprising quote: It came from Doug Ford, who said his brother is not really a conservative and compared him to U.S. President Barack Obama: “He’s a huge, massive social liberal. He loves Obama. The headlines of the papers when he won? ‘The White Obama.’ ”
- I will not leave” quote: Speaking to a supporter, Mr. Ford said: “I’m not stepping down. Don’t worry. What I always say is, there are more poor people than rich people and I stick up for the poor people.” His supporters cheered in response.
- Self-defence: The mayor asserted he never lied about smoking crack. He said the media didn’t ask the right question. “They said, ‘Do you smoke crack?’ and ‘Are you a crack addict?’ No, I don’t smoke crack and I’m not a crack addict. Have I? Yes I have. I didn’t lie. I don’t smoke crack. I haven’t smoked crack in over a year.”
Fox News channel’s John Roberts interviewed Mr. Ford one-on-one. It aired on Sunday.
- Revelation: Mr. Ford said he has aspirations of one day running to be prime minister.
- Most surprising quote: Criticizing federal Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau for admitting to smoking pot. “You look at [Prime Minister Harper’s] record and put it to Mr. Trudeau’s record, it’s like night and day. Illegal drugs are illegal drugs.”
- “I will not leave” quote: “Ninety per cent of the people – 99 per cent – said ‘Rob, I don’t know how you can do this. You should just resign.’ I’m not resigning. I’m not stepping aside. I’m here to fight for the little guy.”
- Self-defence: “I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not a drug addict. Maybe some people are. I’m not.”
FORD NATION ON SUN TV
On Monday night, the Ford brothers’ new TV show premiered on Sun News Network, with the mayor spending a large slice of their air time addressing the controversy that surrounds him.
- Revelation: Mr. Ford said he has stopped drinking. “I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in three weeks. I’ll take a urine test right now.”
- Most surprising quote: Speaking to Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington, Doug Ford said he is being followed by police. "Up to last night, Joe, we still have someone sitting outside our plant. I get up to the office. I just like relaxing, getting away from everyone. Doing some paperwork. We come out and bang, the same car sits there every single night. It was there again last night."
- “I will not leave” quote: “I’m not stepping down. I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not a drug addict. I was elected to represent the people of this city with 380-some-odd thousand votes. The largest in Canada’s history. People keep telling me to stay the course and keep fighting for the little guy.”
- Self-defence: Asked by a viewer if Toronto’s mayor should act as a role model, Rob Ford responded “Absolutely you should be a role model but I’m only human. I am not perfect. I’ve yet to see someone who has never made a mistake in their life and I am a role model. I’ve helped out thousands and thousands and thousands of people.”
Kaleigh Rogers is a freelance writer.