As the mayor’s appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show earlier this month fades into the annals of Rob Ford history, maybe we can put that interview into perspective and see what it teaches us about his relationship with the media.
When it first aired, a chorus of activists and observers on social media who follow city politics obsessively and are clearly disgusted with the mayor’s antics seemed almost giddy that Kimmel, a comedian who often attacks easy targets, treated the mayor with open disdain. They laughed along with the live studio audience as Ford was forced to watch a series of embarrassing videos, to hear himself described as an “abusive exploiter” and a “very sick, very bad man,” and to suffer the indignity of having Kimmel mop the sweat off his brow.
Beyond the lulz, there was a lot of talk about how Toronto and Canadian media should be ashamed that they had never given Ford such a difficult time. Some suggested that the local press should be taking notes on how to deal with Ford. But I think that sentiment only points to a larger misunderstanding of the how the mayor deals with reporters, and questions in general.
First off, Ford has very seldom put himself in a position where he could be grilled as he was on Kimmel. And this rare sit-down interview showed that not much is accomplished by subjecting him to such a situation anyway. Ford did not do or say anything revealing. He just smiled, repeated his local talking points about transit strikes and the vehicle registration tax, and brushed aside his wrongdoings (“I wasn’t elected to be perfect”). Compared to his past interactions with local reporters, his performance seemed familiar, even stale.
Meanwhile, Kimmel didn’t offer anything new, either. There was not a single piece of information he presented to the mayor that didn’t come from the reporting of the Toronto press. It was the local media who exposed Ford’s drug use, who uncovered the police investigation into him and his associates, whose lawyers fought to release the court documents that detailed police evidence so members of the public could read it. Still, many city-politics watchers claim the local media is ignoring these things. There’s a sense that Ford should be forced to answer these charges to everyone’s satisfaction, and that the press has been negligent in not making that happen.
Those same observers seem to think there is some perfect Ford interview to be had. That if he was asked aggressively enough about his billion-dollar cost-cutting claims, his relationship with Sandro Lisi, the death of Anthony Smith, or whatever else, he would say something revelatory. That if, like Kimmel, reporters openly insulted him, or phrased their questions just right, or repeated them often enough, Ford would give us new information or adequately explain himself or…I don’t know, maybe shout “You can’t handle the truth!” But of course he will not do anything of the sort. Interviews with Ford essentially amount to duelling monologues—he never engages in conversation or responds to what is being said.
Over the next eight months, as Ford debates his fellow candidates, lives out his police investigation, and continues to face the media, it will be useful to remember that we’re unlikely to gain a more complete understanding of him based on anything he says—unless maybe he’s answering a question he suddenly tells the press to ask him again.
I don’t think Kimmel provided an example to the Toronto press about how they should do their jobs. Rather, I think he conclusively put to rest the idea that an interview with Ford, no matter how tough, could shed any new light on what we know. Kimmel did a job suited to a comedian—he mocked the mayor to his face and shamed him in public. That provided some catharsis. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the much more difficult and valuable work the local press have been doing all along, work they’ve never needed an interview with the mayor to accomplish.