If asked the question “What would it take to get the world’s media to pay attention to Canada?” I don’t think anyone would have answered “Allegations that a video may exist showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine with drug dealers”.
But such allegations have been made, and the world’s media has turned its attention to Canada, producing more coverage of this one story than on any other Canadian story in years. It has the world asking who is Rob Ford?
In Canadian media, the Toronto Star has led coverage of the issue, and taken a lot of flak from Ford and his supporters who have long accused the paper of holding a vendetta against him.
But without Gawker’s coverage of this issue it would have received scant attention in global media, aside from running news wire stories on it. Gawker was the first to publish a story on the alleged video and their attempt to crowdsource enough funding to buy the video has drawn international attention to the issue.
Most of the time the “Canada” sections of global media websites (if they have a “Canada” section) are pretty quiet, and for the media that don’t have dedicated Canadian coverage it’s usually a mishmash of stories about the oil sands, Blackberry, Canada’s strong banking sector (or how its property market is set to crash) and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government (along with, more recently, the requisite Justin Trudeau profile).
The coverage of the allegations aside, the (a) appearance of a story from Canada and (b) appearance of a story from Canada that’s getting major play internationally has led to some interesting reflections on how Canadians see themselves portrayed in global media and how global media outlets perceive Canada.
“Like most Americans, one of the few things I know about Canada is that it’s supposed to be better than us. It’s an almost unbearably functional place, what with its non-collapsed banking system and strongly growing economy and harmonious, cosmopolitan society (Quebec excepted). If Canada had nuclear weapons, it would never flirt with giving Sarah Palin control over them.
“But I have bad news for you, Canada: Americans have learned about Rob Ford, and we’ll have no more of your smug superiority.”
From Slate (written by Philip Preville, a Canadian and contributing editor at Toronto Life magazine):
“Toronto is mortified. Until last week the embarrassment that is Rob Ford was our little secret, but now the world has discovered our shame. Toronto is an ambitious city, eager to join the world’s top civic brand names alongside New York, Washington, Paris, and Beijing, instead of being forever relegated to the B-list with Helsinki and Lima, Peru. But it is a strangely contemporary kind of ambition. Torontonians love their city like a helicopter parent loves his kid: proudly but protectively and smothered with projected anxiety.
“We want everyone to know Toronto is full of potential, home to stunning Libeskind architecture, gleaming condo towers, solvent banks, and Richard Florida. We did not want anyone to know about Rob Ford. We are embarrassed he was elected, we tell friends from afar who now inquire in droves. We’ve been saying it among ourselves for months, as though it was all someone else’s doing. But we did elect him—and not with entirely disastrous results.”
From Britain’s Spectator magazine (written by Leah Maclaren, a Canadian):
“Perhaps the most depressing thing about the Rob Ford affair is the sense of quiet superiority it’s denied Canadians in general and Torontonians specifically. We know our city is fairly dull compared with more bustling metropolises like Manhattan, Tokyo and London, but at least it’s decent — that at any rate is what we like to tell ourselves. Now we have the indignity of Americans, with their silly gun laws and lack of public healthcare, challenging our sacred niceness.”
From the Guardian (written by Ottawa-based Canadian journalist Colin Horgan):
“Let’s face it, he’s also facing the scrutiny of not just the Canadian press, but Americans who can’t wait to poke fun at their counterparts to the north and social media users around the world.”
And so on. One thing that’s interesting to note is that when a news story like this surfaces that goes quasi-viral it shows just how few reporters there are writing about Canada for international media. The stories are inevitably often written by Canadians or media outlets rely on the news wires that have reporters in Canada (as the Washington Post, Fox News and ABC News),
Except for the late-night talk shows in the US, which have their own “Senior Canadian correspondents” (ie the skit on the Daily Show, which apparently has so many Canadian correspondents that it needs to label some of them “senior”). A round-up of the talk show coverage can be found here.
Final conclusions: the world hasn’t learned much more about Canada from all this coverage. Other than that its apparently-world-class largest city has a buffoon for a mayor. Which may or may not say something about the Torontonians who elected him. And also that this incident may have taken away Canadians’ ability to feel morally superior towards Americans. Which may actually bring the two countries closer together. Because they had a mayor-smoking-crack incident too.