Sane truths in Crazy Town: What Rob Ford’s story offers politics, science and journalism

Crazy Town

Crazy Town

A new book about Toronto’s (in)famous mayor reveals a great deal more than just a story of man known more for what he smokes and says than his governance, to what kind of world we want to live in. Robyn Doolittle’s ‘Crazy Town’ goes well beyond documenting one man’s troubling behaviour and its place in the city he governs to a broader understanding of politics, science and journalism in a day when all three are under threat. 

Toronto has been my adopted home for most of last 15 years. It’s dynamic, clean, safe and North America’s 4th largest city. Toronto is a place of tremendous ethno-cultural diversity (near 1/2 of the population is foreign-born), spectacular food, a thriving arts and culture scene, great universities, home to sports fans with a near pathological faith in their hockey team, and — even with all of that — it’s sometimes a bit dull (and that’s OK).

That last bit about being dull changed dramatically after 2010 and that has to do with one man: Rob Ford, our mayor. Maybe you’ve heard of him.

The narrative arc

Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle was literally at the front line of journalists covering Toronto’s Chief Magistrate and recently published a book on that experience and the story behind the story called Crazy Town. It’s a terrific book that documents the almost surreal events and people behind Rob Ford’s rise to power and current reign as one of the world’s most well-known mayors. It’s a rare work that manages to marry true crime, history, political intrigue, suspense, biography, and a journalism textbook together. I devoured it.

Yet, as a resident and politics fan I was amazed by what I read. I already knew most of the general details of what came out in the book (although chapter 12 is a complete shocker) because I lived through this news. Yet, it was only seeing all of this painted in one long narrative piece that it took a new life and in doing so brought me to a deeper understanding of many issues I’d thought I knew. The reason is largely the narrative arc that only a book (or long-form journalism) can offer.

On the surface, one could argue that what Doolittle did was piece together hundreds of stories she and others had written and compile them with a few additional quips to produce a compendium of Rob Ford’s life in the public’s eye. That in itself is a lot of work, but it doesn’t tell those who were paying attention to the story anything new. Yet, with each story that came out the backstory shows how what was reported — and picked up by others, reacted to, or ignored — was as important as what was learned about the subject and his environment. We read about how — not unlike with police work — the public is exposed to the “facts” but not how the authors chose to disclose (or not) those details and why.

When one considers what these ‘facts’ and the stories behind them entail, it is hard not to see some parallels between the world of political reporting at city hall and the world of science, social innovation, health promotion and policy that I live (and have lived) in. Crazy Town has many lessons for those not interested in Toronto, Rob Ford, politics, journalism or science, yet it is through all of those topics that such lessons are learned. The latter three stand out.

Politics

Rob Ford has defied nearly any explanation of how he has managed to maintain some form of support above 30% (as in, 3/10 polled would vote for him if the election was today). The best I’ve read is from former Canadian hockey legend, educator and parliamentarian Ken Dryden who wrote in the Globe and Mail newspaper about how Rob Ford has found a way to be visible and get the simple things done when other politicians get mired in complexity. He channels people’s frustrations and he makes his constituents feel listened to.

Doolittle’s treatment of Ford – despite the despicable treatment he’s given her, the Toronto Star and journalists overall — is fair and, in many cases, almost flattering when it comes to politics. Ford and his team have, despite appearances on the personal side of things, been very consistent and kept things simple. While Einstein might have challenged that Ford’s simple is too much so, there are lessons for all of us in this.

For those who deal in complexity, which is most human systems, it is easy to get mired in the details and interactions. Ford was steadfast in his over-arching narrative of “the gravy train” and that resonated with people. There is no reason why any other politician couldn’t have picked something similar to drive as their narrative and done much more good than Ford has, but they didn’t.

Ford made himself visible to those who mattered most: his constituents. And they have rewarded him with support.

How often do health care officials, educators, or policy leaders spend time with their key ‘constituents’ in settings that are natural to that audience? Politicos might challenge Ford’s proclivity for door-knocking and BBQ’s in an age of big data analytics, but that resonates with people. Why don’t more leaders get away from staid events in hotel ballrooms, well-crafted PR events, or their own offices to meet with their audiences where they live, work and play?

Good designers know that the design is only good if it gets used in the environment it was intended for and the only way to know that is to go into those environments. Ford knows this.

Science

To be fair, science is my term not Doolittles, but the term ‘evidence’ is one that links my term and her experience as a reporter. By science, I am talking capital ‘S’ science — the enterprise of scientific work as well as the activity.

What follows from the narrative arc that Ford delivered was the ability to frame the evidence held against him. He is masterful at reframing the arguments and keeping people focused on the messages that fit his ongoing  construction of a narrative. For a while, he was able to keep people talking about whether or not he smoked crack or drank alcohol excessively — two very serious issues — in a speculative way and away from the evidence he associated with drug dealers, violent criminals, and lied repeatedly to the press. He still does this.

In 2012 and 2013 the city spent time debating the minutiae of the law around whether or not he was in violation of conflict of interest. Lost in much of this debate was the larger pattern of Rob Ford consistently getting into trouble over all kinds of issues, big and small and how that wasn’t appropriate for any leader, political or not. Recently, Ford was in the news for being drunk in public and speaking in some faux Jamaican patois to customers at a local restaurant.

The issue as discussed in the media was the alcohol and the patois, not the fact that this is a man who, when under the public’s eye, has the judgement to: 1) get drunk in a public place 2) with the person who is accused of extortion related to the infamous crack video, 3) and then get up in front of everyone at the front of the restaurant to make a big, public proclamation.

Two weeks later, at a funeral for his friend’s mother in Vancouver, Ford decides to go to a crowded bar on a weekend night where nearly every young person there has a mobile phone and many proceed to take pictures of him or with him .

This is exactly how scientists and policy makers often behave. The intense focus on the small details leaves out the questions of relevancy and the bigger picture of what the point of the science is. Too often we get sidetracked with specifics and lose sight of a much larger set of issues.

For example, we’ll spend forever arguing the hypothetical possibility that someone might hack into an eHealth record as an argument for not allowing for easy portability and accessibility to that information (despite the fact that it can save lives, engage people, and that banks have been doing it with our life savings and credit for 20 years). (* Note that the details in science can matter a great deal, but just like walking and chewing gum, we can fret details in science and think of the big picture at the same time)

So far, people are willing to pay attention to Ford’s bigger message. Perhaps we need to consider what the bigger message is in our other enterprises and then worry about the details.

Journalism

I love ‘behind the scenes’ looks and this book provides lot to consider when thinking about how journalism is done, particularly that of the investigative kind. Doolittle has been steadfast that Crazy Town might have her name on the cover, but the investigative work that contributed to it was part of a huge team of journalists from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and other outlets. Indeed, it takes a team and the kind of institutional support that the Star has put behind Doolittle.

Alas, this may be an exception. Many journalistic outlets are imploding due to poor management, change of readership habits, shifting business models, and also the public’s unwillingness to pay for things they value online. This last point is the one that we often let skate by in our discussions about media and one that Jaron Lanier has exposed as a major flaw in the modern Internet age.

Just this past week, web pioneer Mark Andreessen speculated on the future of media and — as many who have a stake in a faster, less in depth form of media often do — completely overlooked the role of the media as the a key role in communicating and uncovering key stories for society. To him, the model is dying. Maybe the business model is problematic, but unlike Andreessen I see a big need for journalism for society and as a model for science and health.

In health and science reporting, we are at great risk of losing voices like Andre Picard, Julia Belluz, Carly Weeks and Helen Branswell who have all brought to light many key issues that public health, healthcare and policy seem to forget, hide, complicate, or deny from emergent infectious disease patterns to drug regulation policy and practice.

Would we know about Rob Ford’s fitness for mayoralty if we didn’t have the Star? Would we be talking about the perversion of science and pharmaceuticals were it not for people like Ben Goldacre in the UK? What kind of knowledge would the world have about the NSA if Edward Snowden was a lone blogger and didn’t have The Guardian or New York Times to advance his disclosure? Crazy Town makes you realize what a debt we are owed to modern investigative journalism, journalists and those that support them (and are willing to pay for their products).

A bigger story

Crazy Town ends with the acknowledgement that there is much more of this story yet to be written. This is an election year and Rob Ford is one of the few who have already filed their papers to run for office again.

Crazy Town could have been told in 10,000 tweets, videos and Instagram pics. But it would have missed the point. The book is an argument for why in-depth journalism is needed and why — journalism, science, and politics — all often require a longer narrative arc to understand the bigger picture. Bigger stories don’t fit into a social media world, even if that very social media is part of the story itself.

The book is a great read whether you’re in Toronto, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta;  Madison, Wisconsin; or Phnom Phen, Cambodia. It’s a story as much about a man and a city as it is about ourselves and the world we live in. Read that way, you’ll find that not only is there more to tell of Rob Ford, there is a much bigger story to tell all around us.

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