Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Crazy Town

The dominant narrative of the last decade has been that of whistle-blower. Heather Brooke’s The Revolution will be Digitised is an account of how Julian Assange delivered thousands of military records to the editorial staff at The Guardian. The cache was historically significant, but the biggest problem the media outlet had could be summed up with one word: filing.

That’s right, Brooke’s story is a must read for anyone concerned about internet governance, but it’s also good for anyone who’s struggled to organize documents in an intelligible way. It’s that Herculean task that acts as a suspenseful counterweight to The Guardian‘s rush to make the cache’s contents known. Assange’s mercurial personality is at once protagonist and antagonist in the process, and Brooke’s narration its steady and unobtrusive chorus. 

Heather Brooke's fascinating  look at Julian Assange and the birth of Wikileaks.
Heather Brooke’s look at Julian Assange and the birth of Wikileaks.

Despite the appeal of stories like Assange’s (and Brooke’s excellent account of it), one danger of the whistleblower narrative is that its pursuit can become its own raison d’etre, leading would-be comers to create their own media launchpad. Aaron Swartz, the 26 year old activist who hacked into MIT’s library, killed himself in the pursuit of creating his own monster to slay. He was charged for “liberating” articles from J-Stor, an aggregator of scholarly articles that is liberal with its archives to begin with. At the time I observed that:

…we often play out our deepest needs in theatres of our own making and that even the most convincing altruism can disguise a profound yearning for acclaim. Our needs can be quite cunning in that regard and it is the job of maturity to bring us into closer contact with our souls, to give us the self-knowledge to deliver us from a life lived in the confines of less mature, less liberated versions of ourselves.

Self-knowledge is missing from Doolittle’s account of the Rob Ford story, and the self-regard with which it is written will likely help, rather than hinder, Ford’s re-election. Why? Because Doolittle is a typical J-school graduate who hasn’t developed much depth in her writing, nor much depth in her understanding of human nature, a deficiency studies in sociology, humanities or literature might have helped her with. She’s all about excitement and doesn’t understand how important it is to also have a trustworthy voice. In simpler terms, she hasn’t yet figured out that smarmy tattlers aren’t always attractive, while sinners like Ford unquestionably are.

Don’t believe me? Ask Linda Tripp.

Linda Tripp
Linda Tripp

Who, you ask? She’s the civil servant who uncovered the Monica Lewinsky affair south of the border, a woman Time dubbed “the friend from hell.” I’m wondering how many of us cringed when Clinton, pushed to explain himself on national television, claimed “I did not have sex with that woman”? Or when earlier in his tenure he claimed he had “not inhaled” when he smoked a joint while in university? It’s true his relations with Lewinsky had some bearing on his ability to lead, but his having inhaled or not inhaled marijuana had about as much legitimacy as the far right’s more recent claim that Obama was not really born an American.

While ideas like this initially emanate from the lunatic fringe, some eventually clean themselves up and do a slow cha-cha into the mainstream. For example, the idea that drug-taking can be recreational is acceptable to many of us now. So if we discovered that our current prime minister or any other party leaders liked to smoke a bit of pot on their off hours, how many of us would genuinely object? And if we did, could we honestly say it had nothing to do with our own politics? Ford is being hounded here for a reason and it’s (high) time someone held up a mirror to his tormentors too.

A family history of addiction led me to become involved in lay-counselling in my off hours. What my work with addicts has shown me is this: there is no layer of society untouched by addiction. There are judges who solicit sex by posting nude photos of themselves online. There are surgeons who walk into operating theatres three sheets to the wind. There are lawyers who fall prey to the miraculous powers of cocaine: it allows them to work superhuman hours and feel extraordinarily confident. There are also factory workers, working double shifts, thanks to the energy they get from meth, and any of these addicts may have 15 year-old children smoking weed at 8 am, right before their high school classes start.

Doolittle in a few years time?
Just say no. Doolittle in a few year’s time?

What all the moralizing about Ford’s crack smoking has done is made it more difficult for the addicted to seek help. It’s one thing to get this information out in the public for the public good, but it’s another to tar and feather it with morals lifted straight from Salem, Massachusetts. If Doolittle were older or her superiors wiser, this issue wouldn’t be taking on a life of its own. Yes, there is a video of the mayor smoking crack. Yes, he has some questionable acquaintances, so questionable that Doolittle doesn’t mind getting into cars with them alone in the middle of the night in bad neighbourhoods. I can’t be the only person seeing these contradictions, but there is a collective blindness in Toronto at the moment that can only be described as pathological. The knives are out for the mayor, but in all the excitement, stampeding journalists are tripping all over each other, and stabbing each other in the back to get a scoop. 

Why do I find their accounts less than credible? It’s the inconsistencies among various stories and the fact that much of the information comes from questionable individuals. A media person I know has said that outlets like the Toronto Star ensure their information and sources are genuine, that their “material’s been triple sourced, researched and lawyered to within an inch of its life.” But there’s an incursive quality to material when it comes from criminals: sources reflect and recede until it’s difficult to know exactly what is true. For example, when the Fifth Estate’s Gillian Findlay covered the Ford story, she described Mohamed Farah as an activist involved with community outreach, which is a charitable way of describing someone who kept demanding $100,000 for a 75 second video of the mayor smoking crack.

And here’s how Doolittle described her dealings with him:

The moment I spotted Farah’s black sedan, I sent Cooke an email with a description of the vehicle and the plate number — just in case. I climbed into the passenger side. The car was clean and obviously quite new. I didn’t see a scrap of trash.

Mohamed Farah
Mohamed Farah: a clean car?

The reference to trash is notable because it’s clear Doolittle felt she was dealing with someone who was not addicted and was therefore relatively safe and reliable. I see it differently: a new and clean car says young Farah has a good and steady source of income. His straight-arrow appearance and his actions suggest his involvement with drugs is even more likely. Those of us who know about these things can tell you: organized crime prefers respectable looking dealers savvy enough to eschew drugs themselves. It’s called staying under the radar and can be found in the course manual for Drug Dealing 101. It’s a course that should be taught in Ryerson’s Journalism program, if only to keep naive graduates like Doolittle from spreading the risible idea that a clean car equals “safe.” 

Doolittle does make one correct observation. Ford does empower his followers by making himself accessible. However, far from being cynical, it’s a part of his reputation that took years to cultivate. In other words, as a city councillor he had to have helped a lot of constituents to become renown for this. And this is where a bit of literary analysis comes in handy. Like it or not, the character of Ford’s public voice is sympathetic and convincing, which is different than saying it’s truthful. His radio show put him out there; his physical gaffes — walking into cameras and knocking over councillors — render him human. Most of us understand what it’s like to want to hide an embarrassing habit, which is why we look at Ford, see a flawed person, and feel empathy. Contrast this with: 

The day before my life changed forever, I covered a story about some activist foodies who had decided to protest Toronto’s perplexing street-food bylaws. A group called Food Forward had set up a “guerrilla food cart” in front of City Hall, handing out apples to passersby, I wrote. The next morning, one of the organizers called to complain that I had used the word guerilla. I had apparently insinuated that they were gun-wielding rebel fighters. “I was just trying to use an interesting word to describe your fruit protest,” I sighed. “I don’t think anyone would read that and actually think you were holding AK-47s.” She wanted a correction. I referred her to the Star’s public editor, then put my head down on my desk. I’d seen video of the mayor maybe smoking crack cocaine, and I was spending my morning dealing with aggravated food cart protestors.

I’m not sure that Doolittle’s saying her “life changed forever” is appropriate here, but it sure is colourful. And so is her attitude when it comes to some activist foodies because her choice of words illustrates her scorn for those who aren’t in on her narcissistic coup. The “how dare they interrupt me?” sentiments are clear here, meaning that Doolittle and her superiors need a reality check about the actual weight of the material they’ve uncovered: they will disagree, but for most of us, the Ford story is not exactly Watergate.

Ford and his wife Renata
Ford and his wife Renata

What is weighty, however, is Doolittle’s use of an audio recording, allegedly made on the sly by a confidante of Ford’s wife, Renata. The conversation took place soon after his election. The two friends were in a car, outside a Tim Horton’s, and Renata is apparently bemoaning her husband’s drug use, saying he refuses to quit “blow.” Doolittle claims she was allowed to listen to the tape twice and take notes. She also says her source refused to hand it over unless money exchanged hands. The fact that The Star refused to pay for the information seems to be a point of pride.

This feels like a strange version of those shell games played on New York City streets. The Star is saying: “Look over here and let us distract you with our honour, while we slip the fact that this is totally unverified past you.” This is why tapes made without a subject’s knowledge are not, for the most part, admissible in court. 

If Toronto really wants to be a world class city, maybe they should take a look at how France’s media is covering François Hollande’s extra-marital affair and hire world class reporters too. Doolittle’s implication that she is the hero at the centre of this narrative is a bit like hearing Justin Bieber sing about the Canadian senate scandal. It’s inappropriate, wrong, and just too awful to contemplate.

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4 Replies to “Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Crazy Town”

  1. Thanks for the review. I think the book is just another part of the Ford-bashing entertainment Toronto is currently enjoying. I haven’t read the book, but it seems more like a celebrity story, instead of a serious political biography.

  2. So… do you feel about EMS making 2 dozen calls to Ford’s home address? That’s what reasonable people call “just too awful to contemplate”.

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