Book Review: Crazy Town hastily written but a gripping read
It’s not easy to report on the Fords, writes Jan Wong, but the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle is a journalist who has gotten the story right, over and over again. And yet the public either refuses to believe her or doesn’t care. As she puts it, the trust-me era for journalism is over.
Reviewed by Jan Wong
In 1998, after a lot of cash went missing from a stash behind a loose brick in his basement wall, Doug Ford Sr. forced his four adult children to take lie detector tests. Kathy, Randy, Doug Jr. and Rob all had denied stealing the money. The polygraph showed Kathy, a drug addict, was lying.
Polygraphs? Addiction? Theft? In her new book, Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle describes an epically dysfunctional Ford family. All four siblings had drug-related problems, not just Mayor Rob Ford who, by his now infamous admission, smoked crack while in a “drunken stupor.”
As one assigned to write a magazine column about the mayor’s mysterious wife, Renata, I know the mountain of work involved. I pored over high school yearbooks and cold-called former classmates. I rang neighbours’ doorbells. Twice I dropped by the Ford home. (According to my personal unwritten code of conduct, twice is OK; three is harassment.)
On my first visit, Ford’s mother-in-law went to fetch her, but Renata wouldn’t come to the door. The second time, after I’d rung the doorbell to no avail, someone in the family’s dark blue Ford Escape nearly rammed my taxi parked in the driveway. Yet I couldn’t uncover basics, such as whether Renata had a job or was born in Canada or Poland. So kudos to Doolittle for uncovering that Ford’s wife had been previously married and that, soon after giving birth to her daughter, she was arrested in 2005 for impaired driving.
Related content on J-Source:
- Live blog: Q&A with Robyn Doolittle
- Book Review: Verification Handbook is a must-read for all digital journalists
- Dan Rowe is J-Source’s new book review editor
Doolittle and her colleagues get scoop after scoop, often no thanks to the Star’s editors. For instance, they held back an important story about the mayor’s staff urging him to enter an alcohol rehab program; the editors were nervous after Ford falsely accused Star reporter Daniel Dale of taking surreptitious photos of his two young children.
The biggest screw-up was, of course, getting scooped on the crack video. Someone named Mohamed Farah was peddling it and wanted $100,000. Doolittle and Kevin Donovan, an investigative reporter at the Star, proceeded cautiously, as they should have. But by early May, they had personally viewed the 90-second video—three times. At that point, I would have written it. Astoundingly, the Star held back. The editors debated buying the video, but were unwilling to pay the asking price.
You know the rest. Gawker, which also refused to cough up $100,000, reported on the video’s existence. It also published the incriminating photo of the mayor posing with three gang members, including one who had been shot dead six weeks earlier.
Doolittle recounts the painful day the Star got scooped. At noon, a TV producer told her CNN was on the story. That afternoon, Farah confirmed he had also shopped and shown the video to Gawker. Incredibly, that evening Doolittle and Michael Cooke, the Star’s editor-in-chief, went to a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown for a book launch. When Gawker published around 8:30 p.m., Doolittle and Cooke grabbed a taxi and raced to the newsroom to play catch-up.
Here’s the head-scratcher: it wasn’t good enough for the editors that two experienced reporters had viewed the crack video. But that same rationale crumbled as soon as a U.S. gossip website published the story. If the brass at the Washington Post had used those unrealistic standards during Watergate, Richard Nixon would never have resigned the presidency. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired a generation, including myself, to go to journalism school. Their memoir, All the President’s Men, is disjointed and rambling, which is excusable, because they wrote it at top speed while continuing to report the story. Crazy Town was written with the same haste, but is both gripping and well written.
Depressingly, Doolittle points out that that half of Toronto initially disbelieved the Star’s crack-video story. Many readers cancelled subscriptions. Worse, after Ford admitted smoking crack, his popularity ratings actually rose. For journalists, the sorry saga reflects the state of journalism today. I experienced that disbelief, too. After the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, when Beijing initially claimed no one died, many people kept asking journalists, myself included, if we had any proof, meaning actual footage of someone being killed in the square. The fact that we were professional eyewitnesses didn’t seem good enough.
Doolittle shows how amalgamation of the mega-city created the roots of Ford’s support. She shows that the mayor has fulfilled many of his campaign pledges. And she suggests, despite the Star’s relentless investigative reporting, it is possible Ford could win re-election. Doolittle is a journalist who has gotten the story right, over and over again. And yet the public either refuses to believe her or doesn’t care. As she puts it, the trust-me era for journalism is over.
Jan Wong’s latest book is Out of the Blue: a Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, yes, Happiness. She divides her time between Toronto and Fredericton, where she teaches journalism at St. Thomas University.
Related content on J-Source:
- OPINION: Video, shmideo: reporting is about telling what you see and hear
- Book Review: Gene Allen’s Making National News cements the influential but little-known role Canadian Press played as a significant cultural force
- Book Review: Amanda Lindhout’s A House in the Sky came at too high a cost
Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.