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How the media has helped Rob Ford

September 25, 2010

Note: Originally published at Spacing Votes. The premise of this article is that in any complex situation (such as the Toronto mayoral race) every actor plays a role and influences the events to varying degrees. Here I’m arguing that the media also plays an important role in an election campaign. Please add your comments below.


Rob Ford‘s rise from right-wing outsider to front-runner in this marathon mayoral race has been extensively documented by Toronto’s media, and it has been interesting to see how the portrayal of Rob Ford and his all-conquering campaign has evolved. In fact, it may be argued that the media has played (possibly unwittingly) a key role in every campaign’s fortunes.

Initially there was a nonplussed reaction from the media when Ford joined the race. Few expected the man from Etobicoke to mount a serious challenge to George Smitherman, who had then been anointed as frontrunner. Then, as Ford did indeed register a strong showing in the polls, there was incredulity, especially when a poll showed that he matched Smitherman. That was quickly replaced by disbelief and denial when Ford first inched to the top, and the results were called into doubt. Gradually, however, it has become clear that this is no joke — Ford does indeed enjoy the widest support amongst the candidates, by a solid 24% margin over Smitherman.

Now there is an air of rationalizing and resentful acceptance from the national media. The front pages on Monday morning declaring that Ford was set for a landslide may have been unbiased. But the editorials have not, to put it charitably, been supportive. They recognize why Ford is winning and have begun assigning responsibility — to the other candidates for not distinguishing themselves, to Rob Ford and his team for sticking to their message, to the citizens for not looking beyond Ford’s promises, and to the outgoing David Miller for making people so frustrated. The media doesn’t seem to realize that it is holds responsibility too.

To begin with, though, let’s look at how Ford has been described in the media. First he was lampooned as a joke, the loud mouth candidate who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Then he was an irritant, with vague ads on YouTube and a questionable disciplinary history. As he started rising in the polls and making controversial remarks (such as the accusation of corruption at City Hall), he was attacked by other candidates as a dangerous menace to Toronto’s future. His mug shot was given front-page treatment, and for a period there was nothing but bad news when it came to Rob Ford. Still, he defended himself. Still his supporters claimed that he would win, and still, crucially, his numbers kept rising. A few relatively sympathetic articles recently tried to explain this, painting him as a simpleton with little understanding of urban governance but a profound sense of service to citizens. A case of misguided intentions. Which is he? A bit of everything, probably.

For starters, the descriptions mentioned above are so simple that they don’t quite click. A 41-year-old city councillor with a decade of experience at City Hall has “the mind of a baby”? Is it really possible that someone with a 98% attendance record failed to grasp, during all of those years, that firing gardeners wouldn’t solve the many problems surrounding municipal finance? Mr. Ford answers these questions — he proudly claims that he is indeed a simple guy who just talks straight. No wonder he garnered the highest trust ranking in CP24’s last poll. After all, he’s not a career politician like his nearest rivals Smitherman and Joe Pantalone (although ten years as elected councillor say otherwise). So Ford might well be a little disingenuous with building that ‘straight-talk’ brand. To his credit, though, it works. Armed with clear messaging, priorities that voters connect to, and lots of goodwill from constituents — resulting in lots of positive word-of-mouth— he has gone viral in a way that his YouTube videos never did.

This process has been helped in no small way by the media that has given Ford all the publicity he needed for widespread name recognition. Although the publicity was often negative, it limited the space available for coverage to other candidates and sustained popular perceptions of candidates. We are reminded, for example, that “Furious George” has a tainted record, and that the meek, yet good intentioned Pantalone is always at mercy of the unions. Getting caught up in it all, the media has largely restricted itself to news coverage rather than focusing on the issues. The Toronto Star‘s new smell test series is a welcome initiative.

Ford’s success has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the sense that the reactions to it have only helped it grow. His opponents lost direction — Smitherman, in particular — and lost some of the support they already had. Ford himself understood that his route to success wouldn’t change — as long as he kept harping about one thing only he would continue to gain support. (This, of course, adds credence to the notion that he is more intelligent than he lets on.) Finally, the media, as mentioned above, gave him prominent, headline-heavy coverage that bolstered Ford’s campaign, failing to properly cover the election. If Ford is winning because there is no credible alternative, then it may also be argued that no credible alternative has been presented to the public by the media either.

The big story in the 2010 Toronto mayoral race has been the inability of a good candidate to shine through, not Rob Ford. It is collective mediocrity that deserves more attention than the success of a populist, simplistic campaign.

Will the following few weeks finally see a focus on platforms and not individuals? It’s a 31-day countdown.

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