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Media Bites: Fordgate and Gawker Prove Canada Wants the Dirt

05/20/2013 12:53 EDT | Updated 07/20/2013 05:12 EDT
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Back in mid-'90s, when it was almost impossible to find an American newspaper that wasn't brimming with licentious details of Bill Clinton's intern-boinking, it could be just as difficult to find a Canadian journalist who wasn't brimming with contempt for this supposedly most American of obsessions.

So the President had an extramarital affair, so what, they scoffed -- such titillating irrelevancies wouldn't even make it to page R-35 in our papers. I mean, just imagine if our journalists wasted their time chronicling all the women bedded by old man Trudeau -- there'd be no space for mattress ads, let alone actual news.

But of course the American media made a big deal about Monica Lewinsky not because the United States is a nation of sour-mouthed puritans, but because, well, the President had an affair, and in a city as big and buzzing with reporters as Washington DC, it's hard to keep anything that hot under wraps. Indeed, I've recently been reading A Vast Conspiracy, Jeffrey Toobin's seminal account of Lewinskygate, and one of the most dramatic plot twists occurs when nervous, respectable Newsweek tries in vain to spike the Monica story, only to see it break on the blog of Matthew Drudge (whose sense of journalistic propriety was, let's say, a tad looser).

That was what made the Clinton scandal so uniquely American; not the sex, but the unapologetic refusal to keep anyone's secret, no matter how powerful. We Canadians never quite mastered that.

It's not terribly surprising, therefore, that the alleged existence of a video of the mayor of Toronto smoking crack cocaine was announced to the world not by any enterprising Canadian newspaper, network, or reporter, but rather Gawker, the famed New York-based scandal-chasing web hub best known for leaking the deets on Mitt Romney's personal finances and publicly shaming Bill O'Reilly over his soap opera divorce.

It would have been nice for a major Canuck gossip blog to have broken the news, but that would require the existence of such a thing in the first place. So instead Mayor Ford's dealers showed their recording to Gawker's Virginia-born editor, John Cook, whose ensuing movie review cracks jokes about not knowing what to call someone who lives in Toronto ("Torontonians? Torontites?"), and confusion over which member of the Trudeau family the Mayor thinks is a homosexual ("It's hard to keep all these Canadians apart").

Cook's story went up on 8:28 p.m. on Thursday, May 16. It was quickly followed by a Twitter announcement from the Toronto Star that a "U.S. website" was making dark allegations against the mayor. Just before midnight, the paper then uploaded a proper story by reporters Robyn Doolittle and Kevin Donovan confirming that they too had watched the same crack-smoking video as Cook. Several weeks ago, in fact.

"Why did you sit on the story for so long? Were you investigating or were you motivated by the Gawker piece?" someone asked Donovan in an official Star chat session the next day.

"[T]he Gawker piece put us in the following position," replied Kevin, only somewhat coherently.  "Robyn and I had seen the video three times. We had information about something that was going to become a very important issue. We decided to write what we had seen."

We can have a healthy debate as to whether the public interest is better served by the cautious, guarded professionalism of the Star or the wild tabloid sensationalism of Cook and Gawker, but what can't be disputed is that in the age of the Internet a hell of a lot of Canadians are getting their news from the latter. The reason every major American news and gossip site from Politico to Slate seems unusually obsessed with this foreign scandal is the same reason there's so many Canadian in-jokes on American television these days -- U.S. producers are smart enough to realize that Canadians represent a major chunk of the North American consumer base, and there's very little commercial downside in giving them what they want. Especially when their own media won't.

The supposedly iconic, gentile restraint of the Canadian press -- something Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine credited with keeping our society so calm and kind -- was always artificial. It was a politeness more imposed than organic; a false consensus crafted by busybodies like the CRTC, scolds like the Broadcast Standards Council, and a handful of ideologically-motivated, self-censoring journalists, rather than any genuine outgrowth of the Canadian character - which, truth be told, has always been fairly voyeuristic and salacious (as a quick visit to any supermarket checkout will confirm).

In another age, one can imagine the Star editors sitting on Fordgate indefinitely, endlessly scratching their paternalistic heads as to whether a gossipy, anonymously-sourced story about a public figure's private demons was really the sort of thing the delicate people of Canada "needed to know." Now, however, with the Gawkers of the world happily pillaging their readers, revenue, and reputation, decency debates are a luxury Canada's old guard media establishment literally can't afford.

Fordgate is a classic example of new media leading the old, but also an uncomfortable reminder that muckraking online journalism still remains a decidedly American art -- even when its subjects are Canadian. John Cook might not be able to tell his Trudeaus apart, but he'll still dish the dirt our own press won't.

And make no mistake, dirt's what we want. Perhaps someday even sex.

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