Say what you will about Ontario Premier Doug Ford, but he’s a guy who can play to an audience. Whenever goofy, folks-laden bullshit crosses his melon, he knows there’s a group of people happy to hear it and repeat it to as broad of an audience as possible: the media covering his press conferences.
The journalists covering Ontario’s government haven’t been doing their jobs well. For all their posturing as the holders-to-account of the Ontario government, and Ford in particular, it’s a group of people very willing to run ridiculous lines. And this has a real effect on the public.
When a politician is able to get out their exact message, particularly when it’s nonsense, the media is bending to their whims. They want those catchy lines to be printed, as it allows them to shape the public’s opinion of their actions.
Things seem to have shifted a bit recently, as Ontario’s pandemic-situation has gone from bad to horrific. But despite this, much of the reporting has, intentionally or not, been deferential to Ford.
So, I’ve compiled a few egregious examples of the press pack eating what they’re fed by Ford, and a couple of what coverage should look like.
(You may notice I’ve included no articles from the Toronto Sun. That’s by design. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Adrienne Batra, was former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s press secretary. Their provincial and federal politics columnist Brian Lilley lives with Ford’s media director. Ford’s chief of staff is James Wallace, the former vice-president in charge of the Sun papers. The outlets that follow can be expected to be critical of the government, the Sun cannot.)
Vaccines, Vaccines, Vaccines
Canada started slowly receiving vaccines in January, until a temporary shutdown at Pfizer’s European vaccine plant to increase capacity led to an interruption. (The company would ultimately make its promised quota for the end of March.) This was a major problem for Ford, because his plan has revolved around vaccinating the province out of the pandemic without imposing further measures. Ford decided to react by going with what has served him well thus far: lots and lots of bluster.
On January 20, Ford came out with a headline-grabbing quote about pressuring the Pfizer CEO to send more vaccines to Canada.
Here’s how the Toronto Star opened their coverage: “An ‘angry’ Premier Doug Ford sounded off at Pfizer in colourful fashion after learning Tuesday that the pharmaceutical giant will further cut shipments of its COVID-19 vaccines to Canada, reducing Ontario’s share even more than expected. […] ‘I’m just angry at the situation that other countries are getting it,’ Ford told a news conference at Queen’s Park, encouraging Trudeau to get the attention of Pfizer’s chief executive. ‘I’d be up that guy’s ying-yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,’ the premier added.”
Here’s HuffPost Canada: “We hope it was a metaphor. Premier Doug Ford stole his own government’s thunder Tuesday when he offered some colourful advice on vaccine procurement to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.‘Nothing is more important than getting these vaccines. If I was in his shoes … I’d be up that (Pfizer) guy’s ying yang so far with a firecracker he wouldn’t know what hit him,’ Ford said. ‘I would be outside that guy’s house every time he moved.’”
CP24, blogTO, The Canadian Press, CBC, The Globe and Mail and 680 News all ran with the quote in their stories, and in a few cases in the headline itself. The Toronto Star ran the line again in a national story about vaccine deliveries. The CBC also ran a story about Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe repeating the “ying yang” line for reporters at a press conference in Regina.
Two days later, Ford went on Windsor talk radio station AM 800 and declared he’d go by himself in a truck to the U.S. to pick up vaccine deliveries.
This is pretty absurd for all sorts of reasons, including that it’s not clear if he can even drive anything bigger than his pickup. (I asked Ford’s office if he actually has a licence that would allow him to drive a commercial refrigerated truck, because that’s the kind of twerp I am, and they didn’t reply. I’m inclined to believe he doesn’t, but if they do reply, we’ll happily update with their response.)
Naturally, CTV picked this interview up and ran it with the headline, “Ontario premier offers to drive to the U.S. himself to pick up more COVID-19 vaccines.”
Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Colin D’Mello wrote, “Premier Doug Ford offered to drive an ultra-cold refrigerated truck to Kalamazoo, Mich. in an effort to secure thousands of doses of the Pfizer vaccine for Ontario – an offer that the premier said was turned down by the drug manufacturer. […] ‘I told the CEO, I’ll help them (with) one of those freezer trucks. I’ll drive down there. I’ve been through Kalamazoo 100 times and, and we’ll pick them up.’”
Who does this serve exactly? Certainly not the public. The premier driving a truck to a factory across the border wouldn’t help increase vaccine supply in the province at all, as the American producers of vaccines signed deals with the U.S. government to keep their supplies in the country. But the quote does (falsely) make it seem like Ford is doing everything to get vaccines, even if it’s foolish and futile.
Weeks later, when it was clear the third wave was underway and Ontario wasn’t implementing additional public-health measures, Ford was still pushing his ‘we need vaccines’ narrative. The coverage, unfortunately, largely stayed the same as well. On March 26, for example, CTV published an article titled, “Ford calls Canada’s vaccine rollout ‘a joke,’ says Trudeau government ‘dropped the ball.’”
Ford is not what you’d call self-critical or reflective, so naturally he blames others when things go badly. And by running with his lines, journalists have effectively pushed his narrative on the public.
The Troubles With AstraZeneca
Talk to anyone in your life these days about vaccines, and AstraZeneca will no doubt come up. There have been issues with its roll out, some self-inflicted and others because of emerging data. Vaccines are already a sensitive topic because of years of online misinformation, but AstraZeneca is particularly touchy due to its slightly lower efficacy and rare but possible side effects. Ford seems like the perfect guy to quote at length about it, then.
On March 29, CTV article, wrote, “Less than an hour after health officials in Prince Edward Island announced they would suspend the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in people under the age of 55, Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn’t flinch in doing the same for Ontario. ‘I won’t hesitate to cancel that in half a heart beat, if it’s going to put anyone in harm,’ Ford said during a news conference in Niagara Falls on Monday. A senior government source would later tell CTV News that Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) will recommend pausing administration of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to those under the age of 55.”
An article from CBC put the NACI recommendations and a quote from Ontario’s chief medical health officer high up in the story, but then immediately dove into Ford’s bluster, writing, “Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn’t hesitate to stop the use of it for people below 55 year of age if there are ‘any issues.’ ‘I won’t hesitate to cancel that in half a heartbeat…we just won’t use it, simple as that,” he said. […] Ford said there have been reports of blood clots in younger women in other places and he didn’t want to ‘roll the dice’ by using AstraZeneca on a group that may have a chance of developing complications.”
Reuters, meanwhile, took a much better approach to covering that press conference. They focused on the experts instead of Ford, and only used one quote from him: “Ford said on Monday that federal officials had told his provincial government late on Sunday that the recommendation was coming. ‘The federal government will be in full discussions [with us], as we have been since yesterday and today, to see the direction we are going to go with this.’”
None of the bluster, just a bit of information. It’s possible for reporters to take this approach if they want to.
Paid Sick Leave
Last week, Ford announced Ontario would be going back under a stay at home order due to rising cases. He’d get a pretty rough ride from reporters at the press conference, but he first managed to hop on one of his hobby horses and blame someone else.
Just before taking questions, he took a shot at those — myself included — who say the province needs to implement sick pay to protect workers bearing the brunt of the pandemic. There is a federal program available to give some money to those waiting on a COVID test, but it’s inadequate, with too many delays and gaps in payment. True sick pay would have no gaps, and is within Ford’s power to implement. Ford doesn’t like the suggestion he should be doing something he’s so obviously ideologically opposed to, so he turns to the harangue.
His rant got plenty of space in subsequent coverage.
Here’s how Global News led off their story: “Despite pleas from many in the medical community and from community advocates for the Ontario government to enact a paid sick day program to help workers who need to stay home due to COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford doubled down on referring residents to a federal government support program. ‘My message to the opposition and everyone else because there are a lot of people that are playing politics right now and it’s totally irresponsible, they’re doing a disservice to the people they’re telling this to, there’s paid sick leave from the federal government,’ he said Wednesday afternoon.”
Other outlets picked up on this argument, including CBC, The Globe and Mail and Newmarket Today, which flipped the story on its head by leading with Canada’s biggest public sector union CUPE pushing back against Ford, even though the headline was “‘Playing politics’: Premier reiterates sick pay is available to frontline workers.”
This is part of a long-running trend from Ford and his government: No matter the pushback from the public and experts, he sticks to his line up until the very moment things get completely out of control.
For example, here’s a CTV story from January, quoting Ford: “‘If the system is not working and that’s what I’m hearing from the media, we’re having conversations as we speak and over the last little while [with the federal government]. If people don’t feel they are getting it quick enough than we need to change the program and if they need to top it up a little more because $500 a week isn’t feasible then we change it’ Ford said. ‘Let’s be very, very clear there’s no reason for the province to jump in there when less than 27 per cent of the overall program hasn’t been taken up.’”
And here’s the Toronto Star Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Robert Benzie in February, covering an exchange in the legislature: “Under the gun for Ontario’s lack of paid sick leave, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are firing back by touting the federal Liberals’ benefit. Labour Minister Monte McNaughton noted Tuesday that more than ‘110,000 workers here in Ontario are either receiving benefits or have applied for benefits’ through Ottawa’s national program. ‘All provincial and territorial leaders worked together with the federal government to deliver $1.1 billion worth of paid sick days to workers in this province and to all Canadians,’ McNaughton told the legislature. There is still $800 million left in the bank account through this federal program.’”
A point the Star story eventually gets to in paragraph 12, albeit through quoting an NDP MPP, is that McNaughton is actually lying about the program in question. His government, and Ford in particular, opposed the program when it was first announced in June 2020.
Leaving Ford’s bullshit unchallenged until after many readers have moved on — people abandon news stories in particular after reading only a few paragraphs — is a problem in itself. But leaving the refutation to an opposition politician makes it seem like it’s a political disagreement, rather than a disagreement with reality.
Ford, and leaders throughout the world, have discovered the power of the daily press briefing. By standing at a podium to inform, harangue and bullshit for the public, they capture the vast majority of the coverage. Give the networks and the scribes enough material to run, and they’ll do so without fail.
It’s perhaps understandable that through a short-term crisis the press would cover the leaders in such a way — it’s distorting, but urgent. But we’re more than a year into the pandemic. Daily updates are run live, and coverage afterward leads with the most quotable — which is to say outrageous — lines that come out of Ford’s mouth.
Repeating Ford’s lines because they’re zippy and pop off the page is a problem, as his folksiness and bombast obscure reality and cover for his failures. Where governments throughout much of the country have failed repeatedly, so too have the press corps.
One of the core cliches journalists like to tell themselves about the industry is that it should “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” The people of Ontario have been afflicted with poor governance for the duration of the pandemic. It’s a shame their premier seems so comfortable.
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