Americans would agree the US has never seen a politician quite like Donald Trump. Constant falsehoods, attacks on newspapers, over-the-top insults directed at individual reporters—these are things many in the US media haven’t had to deal with before. To Canadians, though, this type of media manipulation is all too familiar. For several years, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford treated journalists in much the same way.
The similarities between how these two politicians have approached the media is uncanny, says Daniel Dale, a Toronto Star journalist who covered Ford when he was in office and is now writing about Trump from Washington. Both politicians repeatedly and directly attacked particular media outlets, used the media to rile up their base, personally attacked journalists, and claim everything reported about them is false. “This is all very familiar to me,” says Dale.
As stressful as it was to cover Ford, who passed away last March from cancer, the Canadian media now knows how to report on a post-truth, journalist-bashing politician and they have some ideas for their American counterparts struggling to keep up with Trump. The first piece of advice: Visuals speak louder than words.
No one knows that better than Robyn Doolittle, the now Globe and Mail reporter who was one of two Toronto Star journalists to see the infamous Ford crack-cocaine video. She was only allowed to watch the video on an iPhone in the back seat of a parked car—she couldn’t take pictures or the video with her. While that seemed good enough at the time, when the story came out thousands of Torontonians, including Ford and other city counsellors, said it was fake. “I was shocked that the half the city would think that the Toronto Star made up the story,” she says.
About a year later, now at the Globe and Mail, another drug dealer called saying he had a second video of Ford smoking crack. Once again, she could only watch the video on a mobile phone, but unlike with the first video, her paper agreed to pay $10,000 for several screenshots. When the story came out the next day, Ford checked himself into rehab, something he had never done before. “I have a newfound appreciation for photos,” she says. “In the days of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, people expect to see footage.”
The power of visuals was on full display with the Access Hollywood tape where Trump boasted about his harassment of women. While papers reported on Trump’s treatment of women before it aired, it was only after his comments were heard and seen that it became a national story.
Stand up for yourself
Journalists also have to start getting comfortable with defending themselves, says Dale. A year before the infamous crack video kicked Ford’s disdain for the press into a higher gear, Dale went to see a small piece of property near Ford’s home that the mayor had wanted to buy from the city. About 20 minutes after Dale arrived, Ford came out of his house, saw Dale nearby and began yelling at him. He then charged at him, only stopping when he saw that Dale was holding a cellphone, which had died a few minutes earlier.
That same night, Ford went on TV accusing Dale of trespassing on his property—this was an outright lie, as he was standing on city property—and then, months later, after the crack video had come out, he insinuated that Dale was a pedophile, saying he was standing in his backyard taking pictures of his kids. Of course, this also wasn’t true.
While Dale didn’t want to get into a fight with Ford, as he was worried people might start questioning his credibility. He and his editors decided to hold a press conference where he would tell his side of the story. It was important for him to get on TV, he says, because “if Ford is giving people great video clips, even if he’s lying, then I have to give video clips in response or else he would just dominate,” he says. His editors also let him write a couple of columns. All of that, though, wasn’t enough. After Ford accused Dale of taking pictures of his kids, he sued for defamation. It was only then that the mayor admitted his accusations weren’t true.
US reporters may not sue their president for libel, but they do need to be as transparent as possible in their reporting.
US reporters may not sue their president for libel, but they do need to be as transparent as possible in their reporting, says Doolittle. She learned that people generally have no idea how the press goes about reporting a story, so the more reporters can demystify the process, the better. Doolittle made a point of being available for media interviews, which she admits is weird for reporters, but she felt it was necessary to explain to people how and why she wrote what she did. Her papers also started publishing behind-the-scenes stories to better explain to readers just how many checks and balances there are before a story goes to print.
Have supportive publications
It’s also critical for reporters to know their editors and their newspapers will be there to defend them, says Irene Gentle, managing editor at the Toronto Star. “Reporters have to believe they will be supported despite the attacks on them personally, despite the attacks on the integrity of the news organization and the news industry,” she says. “The editor has to make that completely clear. The reporters have to know their job is to keep going.”
At the same time, it’s even more important that editors and reporters get the story right. Every allegation has to be checked out, every source vetted, and those sources shouldn’t just be taking cheap shots. “The editor has to be with the reporters watching for this. It doesn’t matter how dirty the fight against us is. We have to be clean in all ways,” says Gentle. “With subjects such as Trump, and Ford in his time, the truth usually stands out pretty boldly in the end.” Dale adds that reporters should try, as much as they can, to use on-the-record sources.
Keep doing your job
There’s no question reporting under these conditions is difficult, but Dale and Doolittle say they didn’t do anything differently when it came to their reporting and never avoided publishing a story. Lisa Taylor, a journalism professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says that journalists need to continue reporting what’s in the public’s interest, even if it seems as though the public isn’t interested in what’s being written. And while it was a challenge to be shut out of routine events, says Gentle—Ford didn’t speak to the Star during his term—the paper always gave him the opportunity to comment before a story broke.
The hardest part for both Dale and Doolittle was not the accusations or attacks, it was that the public, and even friends, questioned their work. Dale recalls being at a wedding with acquaintances who asked him if he was sure that the crack video wasn’t CGI. His friends still refer to the property incident as fence-gate, even though he wasn’t near Ford’s fence. “When someone with that kind of megaphone sets a narrative, it’s set,” says Dale. Some people even still believe there was no crack video, even though the video ultimately did come to light, says Doolittle. “That’s where it gets really frustrating or depressing,” she says. “When you encounter people who just will not hear the truth.”
At no time, though, did either reporter want to give up or move to another beat. As any good journalist does, they kept on digging, reporting and writing. “There’s an incredible amount of stress that goes with this, but it’s still an amazing job,” says Doolitte. “You just have to go out and do people proud.”
Bryan Borzykowski is a Toronto-based journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, CNBC, BBC Capital, and the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter: @bborzyko.