Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Macleans-Rob Ford Story: A Media Criticism

This week Macleans has an issue out and it features none other than Toronto’s mayor on the cover. Accompanied by the headline “Crushed”, the image features Ford’s face squeezed. The subtitle reads, “His enemies roused,his brother a liability, Canada’stoughest mayor comes undone.”

The Toronto Star’s City Hall reporter Daniel Dale covered a few inaccuracies in some tweets, including what he felt was a misleading cover, a misrepresentation of how Doug Ford is handled and how the Toronto Star gets its information.

With that said, it’s a fairly interesting piece and not as sensationalist as it could be based on its title.

The article, written by Nicholas Kohler, is most interesting for the rhetorical techniques it uses to frame its narrative. This isn’t to say that rhetorical techniques are necessarily a bad thing; they’re needed to tell a story of any kind. However, the techniques used can inform the reader as to the depth, accuracy and dependencies of a particular argument or narrative.

So with that in mind, let’s look at the article.

The online version begins with “Rob Ford can’t fight city hall: His enemies roused, his brother a liability, Canada’s toughest mayor comes undone.” It’s unlikely this was Kohler writing the headline, but it’s worth taking a look at the assumptions it primes the reader for. 

For starters, the title implies that Ford has been unsuccessful thus far in shaping City Hall, that he can’t do so. To be fair, this is because the headline writer is playing off of the popular phrase, but it’s fitting with the shape of Kohler’s narrative. The subtitle then goes on to identify two sources of Rob Ford’s problems, his enemies and his brother Doug. With these external sources, even Canada’s toughest mayor can’t withstand the pressure. 

The headline here immediately casts Ford in a positive light by being the ‘tough’ politician, a virtue universally admired. By setting Ford up as the tough maverick outsider taking on the establishment, the headline sets up Ford’s downfall solely in opposition to external forces, thus absolving him of his role in his precipitous poll numbers.

Kohler leads his article by establishing the setting at Krista Ford’s inaugural Lingerie Football League game. It’s a place where the ethic of Doug Ford’s daughter- and by extension the family, is on display, “All I care about is: not missing a single tackle & leaving it all,” Kohler cites Krista as tweeting.  The backdrop of red-meat, hard-nosed football- lingerie football at that- is used to frame Kohler’s preferred juxtaposition of  “the intense culture war under way between the Fords and Toronto’s downtown elite.” Lingerie Football, Kohler offers, “is the most powerful symbol of the conflict.”

Putting aside what constitutes ‘the most powerful symbol,’ Kohler’s use of ‘downtown elite’ has a clear agenda. By categorizing an amorphous and undefined group of opposition into an unfavourable term, distance is created between the reader and the perspective that is critical of the Fords. The ‘downtown elite’ is particular and cast as an ‘other’, an identifier by which no person would earnestly portray themselves. 

By contrast, the article gives an intimate and detailed look at the Fords which provides the reader a source of identification and thus sympathy. This is would be more understandable if the article was solely a feature on the Ford brothers but seeing whereas it’s a look a the dynamic of council and the city to the Fords, it would be helpful to further define those elements.

Kohler does make mention of the attention paid to City Hall, but it’s only in passing. He writes that the polarizing nature of the Fords, “[has promoted] a level of civic engagement at city hall not seen in years.” This is true, as evidenced by the intense media coverage, record number of deputations and various civic groups organizing to be heard. However for Kohler’s narrative of entrenched interests v. Fords to work, he disregards that the sources of this civic engagement are new. After all, the unions have always been there and their representatives like Bob Kinnear, Maureen O’Reilly and Mark Ferguson can only give so many deputations. When he does allow for the criticism from moms and crossing guards he dismisses it as a ‘granola backlash’.

The backlash is only described in abstract ways while the Ford mission to combat ‘vested interests’ are given details. The 2600 word article gives just five words to Joe Mihevc and two sentences to Shelley Carroll describing the Fords and one paragraph on the Doug Ford call-in to centrist Josh Matlow’s radio show. The objections to the Ford agenda aren’t given a great voice by the people objecting, but Kohler provides the context:

Ford, who secured an improbable election win by promising to deliver a stripped-down Toronto—one free of graffiti, a Toronto of roads, perhaps some police, lower taxes and little else—has been stopped in his tracks by the city’s old order. His story is a morality tale that plays more like farce. It would be funny if it were not such a powerful lesson in the staying power of civic vested interests and the Sisyphean challenge of changing a city.     

Ford promised a lot of things, among them a city free of graffiti, cancelling the land transfer and vehicle registration taxes and a focus on roads. However, saying he promised a ‘stripped-down’ Toronto is a half-truth. He promised a Toronto free of ‘gravy’, unnecessary things like councillors having the city pay for their own retirement party. His platform promised to find $1.7 billion in ‘waste’ and redirect $416 million of this to improving priority services such as childcare services, services for seniors, affordable housing and other items. Importantly, he said in the weeks before his mayoral campaign that, “Services will not be cut. Guaranteed.”

The objections from the ‘granola crowd’ are largely to these inconsistencies (the governance style too). Services were promised to not be cut and others improved and yet Ford has sought to cut both. Ignoring this part of his mandate and the objections to the city’s direction that are largely fuelled by this conveniently de-complicates the issue to make an easier narrative.

In fact, this information directly undermines Kohler’s story. Rather than being the tough outsider shaking up City Hall, the Fords are like the cynical view of other politicians, tripped up on promising the world to everyone and having no real plan to deliver it.

Kohler’s article is informative on a few levels. To be fair, it’s a decent piece that adds some interesting details like the extent of Doug’s frosty relationship (although other details are exaggerated as Dale points out, so this can be called into question). He also captures the Ford personality and ethic nicely for a general audience.

However, what’s most informative is the range of rhetorical devices and framing mechanisms used to position Rob Ford as the embattled hero of this story. From the start it positions the mayor as the constant and consistent warrior at odds with uncontrollable external forces from his brother to council opposition. When it refers to his opponents, it’s almost always by a derisive and distancing term, like ‘downtown elitists’, ‘the granola backlash’ or ‘special interests’. The concerns of these groups aren’t presented, obscuring any way that Ford brought these problems on to himself.

This isn’t necessarily intentional on Kohler’s part, but it’s an important exercise to look at the shortcomings of media narratives. The mostly pro-Ford story mimics the political narrative presented by the Ford team. It’s framed as an appeal to character, a personal connection to an individual on a vague mission to overcome vaguely villainous groups and vague waste.

In the end its connection to the detailed and nuanced political circumstances at City Hall is tenuous. After all, it's just a story. 

No comments:

Post a Comment