On the day his former press aide took up a job at the Toronto Sun, Mayor Rob Ford insisted he won't play favourites with the city's news outlets. "If people want to read a paper, pick up the Globe, Post, or Sun," he said in a Friday morning radio interview.
Still, those outlets might not want to trumpet the endorsement too loudly because the mayor made it by way of criticizing the Toronto Star. It's the latest move in an unusual campaign his administration has waged against the paper for a July, 2010, article that put his nose out of joint, about his aggressive style as a high school football coach. Mayor Ford initiated legal action, which has lapsed.
Since taking office a year ago, his office has given the Star the silent treatment, leaving its reporters off the distribution list of communiqués, invitations to press conferences, and other announcements of official business.
On Friday, after the Star published a column by its publisher announcing the paper would file a formal complaint with the city's integrity commissioner over the practice, the mayor told radio host John Oakley he still wouldn't talk to the paper until it apologized. He also played down the effect of the freeze-out.
"This is so ridiculous," he said. "We might have sent out five press releases. And at City Hall there's a press gallery. You send only one press release, everybody gets it. It's like one big family."
Reporters at other outlets have, indeed, passed along communications from the mayor's office to the Star. Still, Mayor Ford's treatment of the newspaper appears to have little precedent. While plenty of politicians hold grudges against news outlets, withholding quotidian information that is freely communicated to other outlets is rare for the mayor of a North American metropolis.
"It couldn't happen in the United States, because stuff like the mayor's schedule and press releases are considered official government documents, and they have to be made available to anyone who requests them," noted Kelly McBride, a faculty member with the Poynter Institute journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"That's not to say there aren't a number of mayors that have tried, but usually they're really small town, 'good ol' boy' kind of guys. This kind of behaviour is surprising, coming from a mayor in a city as big as Toronto."
She added: "A public official who won't communicate with the media, suggests to me that he doesn't take his obligation to be responsive to the population that elected him, very seriously." The Star is Canada's largest city newspaper.
On Friday, Adrienne Batra, who announced she was stepping down as the mayor's press secretary earlier this week, began her job as the Sun's new comment editor.
Relations between politicians and the press have a fraught history, but they are in the midst of a transformation as officeholders are able to take their message straight to the people through alternative channels, like social media and niche outlets. After being embarrassed by an interview with NBC's Katie Couric that left viewers with the impression that she didn't read newspapers, the former U.S. politician Sarah Palin most often appeared in the friendlier environment of Fox News. Even so, she didn't freeze out any single outlet that regularly covered her work as Governor of Alaska.
And other politicians are finding innovative ways to work with the press: Last month, the mayor of West Valley City, Utah, admitted he had used a fake name to write freelance stories about his city for local papers.
There is some evidence Mayor Ford may be sneaking in peeks at the Star on the sly: In expense reports submitted last month, he invoiced the city $389 for a one-year subscription to the paper. It expires Dec. 11.
With reports from Steve Ladurantaye
News the Toronto Star missed because of Ford
Here are the past five notifications the newspaper missed out on:
Nov. 29: It is with regret that we announce the resignation of Adrienne Batra, Press Secretary in the Office of the Mayor effective December 2, 2011.
Nov. 28: Mayor Rob Ford will speak to members of the media regarding the 2012 staff recommended budget.
Nov. 15: Toronto Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and Councillor Norm Kelly (Chair of Parks Forestry & Environment) will be available to members of the media today to speak about Occupy Toronto at 12:30 p.m.
Oct. 27: Statement from Mayor Ford – "On Monday morning, I was ambushed in the driveway of my home by two people who rushed up to me screaming and waving at me, while I was trying to leave my home and get my daughter off to school."
Oct. 19: Re: Ombudsman's Report Potholes, Floods and Broken Branches: How the City Handles Your Claims