Last Sunday, The Toronto Sun told us everything we need to know about how the 2018 mayoral race will be conducted. Go straight to your parakeet cage and tell Petey to hop up on his little trapeze so you can extract the paper, take it to the balcony, shake off all the dried turds and bird seed, and open it to pages 4 and 5.
Both mayoral candidates are presented on that two-page spread. A third of page 4 is devoted to (guest author) John Tory’s self-praise, in a piece entitled, “I’ll lead charge to keep taxes low.” The entirety of page 5 is given over to exploring Sue-Anne Levy’s headline question, “VISIONARY OR HUCKSTER? Who’s Jennifer Keesmaat, and what’s behind her bid for Toronto's tob [sic] job?"
Presumably, if Keesmaat were to appear as a guest columnist, alongside John Tory, readers would gain a more balanced perspective on the two candidates. Instead, butt-covering with question marks at every turn, Levy seems to pursue probing journalistic insights, but in the end delivers nothing but inferences and vague adjectives.
In a nutshell, Levy thinks that Keesmaat is too ambitious and outspoken. You could simply add, “for a woman,” to Levy’s verdict, since these aren’t pejoratives when applied to a male politician. Does Levy think that John Tory is too ambitious and outspoken? She’s never devoted a full page to the subject, if so.
Consider this tortured bit of unevidenced argument: “throughout [Keesmaat’s] time at City Hall, she had a very strong – often provocative – Twitter presence, criticized frequently behind the scenes repeatedly for tweets that were considered too outspoken for a bureaucrat.”
As far as anyone can actually verify from reading this article, the only person who thinks that “strong” and “provocative” are pejoratives, and the only person who criticized Keesmaat behind the scenes about her outspokenness, is Levy herself.
There are convoluted suggestions that it was wrong of Keesmaat to accept paid speaking engagements during her term as Chief Planner, though Levy concedes that this was specifically allowed under the terms of her contract.
Levy might have recalled that Toronto’s planning department needed its profile raised, when Keesmaat was selected as Chief Planner. Planning & Development struggled with hiring and retaining people in an environment where rogue councillors and the Ontario Municipal Board ran roughshod over Toronto’s Official Plan. Real estate development activity was increasing in pace and volume, adding pressure on the department’s already strained capacity. Perhaps the qualities Levy condemns were actually sought by the City when it chose Keesmaat over other candidates. Again, had this been a strong, provocative, ambitious, and outspoken male candidate, Levy might be using these adjectives in praise rather than condemnation.
As a hatchet job, it’s a pretty dull effort. Maybe Levy needed more time to sharpen her rhetoric. Keesmaat only entered the race at the last minute, following Doug Ford’s snap decision to change the number of councillors and all the ward boundaries in the middle of an election. That’s what created the motive and opportunity for her late registration as a candidate, ruining what would have been the virtual acclamation of John Tory. In the abattoir of ideas that is The Sun’s editorial page, there’s no cut more tender than the uncontested election of a conservative, white, male millionaire.
Wait, wait, wait – in fairness, this butchery did not occur on the editorial page. Although that is normally where you would put a self-authored puff piece by John Tory and an utterly unsubstantiated character assassination by Sue-Anne Levy, both were published under page headers labelled, “NEWS.” (It should be noted that, in The Sun’s online versions, Tory’s article is classified as ‘Opinion’, though Levy’s remains ‘News’.) Maybe it was mistaken for news because Levy stated her accusation in the interrogative form, “VISIONARY OR HUCKSTER,” as if there were a question about what Levy and The Sun actually think of Keesmaat.
Speaking of titles, let’s consider Tory’s mystifying statement of self-praise: “I’ll lead charge to keep taxes low.”
Think about it: How can you lead a charge to keep things the same? Seriously, that’s what he wrote. What could he possibly mean? Inquiring minds need to know!
Metaphorically, Tory seems to imagine himself at the head of a thundering column, lances lowered and aimed at... what? Keeping taxes where they are? Really? Is that what Tory is charging towards – the same place we started from? Is that his inspiring campaign theme for 2018?
Tory repeatedly uses the words “affordable,” in reference to concerns about those struggling to find adequate housing in Toronto, and “discipline,” to describe how he oversees an economy that never improves for those struggling. Sure, the economy is on fire, but his emphasis on affordability acknowledges that some people are getting burnt while others toast their marshmallows. It takes misplaced discipline to maintain the status quo when some people are obviously and needlessly suffering, while others prosper beyond all proportion. But that is the Tory way.
To complete the picture of this narrow-minded broadsheet, you’ll have to imagine the rest of page 4. Alongside Tory’s column, the remaining two thirds of the page is filled with news of Giorgio Mammoliti’s call for an aggressive police crackdown on criminals in subsidized housing projects. As if still yearning for his lost bromance with the Ford boys, Mammoliti echoes the Premier’s call for more police power and aggression, including the reviled and racialized practice of carding, as an antidote to gun violence.
There’s no news here either and virtually no commentary on Giorgio’s idiocy. In fact, it’s a virtually fact free string of incoherent quotes from the man himself.
So, we have two pages of so-called “NEWS,” on which there is not a word of news to be found. Two thirds of the left page present the views of a man who wants to go backwards in time to revive outdated police practices. The remaining third is devoted to a man who thinks he’s charging somewhere by standing still. The entire right page is dedicated to presenting what appears to me as a retrograde, antifeminist diatribe against the mayoral candidate who advocates for the most change.
None of this is surprising in itself. Levy slanders people who don’t share her views. Tory praises himself. Mammoliti blathers like an idiot. And, the champions of journalistic integrity on the editorial board at The Sun bundle the whole mess together, typos and all, for sale under the aegis of “NEWS.”
What makes this remarkable to me is the careless ease with which the media weighs and discards candidates that don’t fit the familiar and comforting narrative they’ve written. In 2010, tired of David Miller’s leadership, the media made Rob Ford look less dangerous than the other candidates. In 2014, the poll-driven media put candidates out of contention by withholding serious coverage of their platforms until they lost credibility, their fund raising was crippled, and they had to drop out. Karen Stintz and David Socknyacki both had a lot to offer as candidates, and both were driven out of the race by journalists who relegated them to defeat before the campaign was fully underway.
Back then, we had five viable candidates. This time, we have only two. Eliminate one at the outset, as Levy and her paper are attempting, and we’re back to Tory by acclamation. While no conscientious member of a free press would declare that to be a healthy democratic outcome, it is, nonetheless, the undeclared purpose of Sunday’s unfair and unbalanced attack on Keesmaat’s character.
I’m also troubled by the persistent and virulent strain of sexism still at work here. We saw it when Keesmaat endured a similar roasting from Christopher Hume in The Toronto Star during her first year on the job as City Planner. Like Levy, he had nothing but unsubstantiated ad hominem criticisms. However, Hume saw in Keesmaat the opposite qualities of those Levy complains about. Keesmaat was too timid, afraid, and unambitious to assimilate the big ideas that Hume and his hero, Frank Gehry, had for David Mirvish’s corner of King and John Street.
I called him out for this, believing that he would never have described a man using the terms he applied to Keesmaat. He was trying to intimidate her into compromising her planning principles and judgement so that she might be considered for membership in the old boys’ club of self-appointed “city builders.”
As with Levy’s attack, Hume deftly avoided substantive evidence and argument, preferring to assault Keesmaat’s character. He ignored the real reasons she was reluctant to grant a permit for a development that was too big for the space and the services available to it. He dismissed the fact that, if a permit was given, it would have set a precedent for the destruction of an historic precinct that the city had zoned for preservation. In the years that have passed since that incident, has Toronto gained no further appreciation of the contribution women can make in positions of power?
As a side note, I had lunch with David Mirvish about a year later. He opened the conversation as if my post on the Hume article was still fresh in his mind: “I just want you to know that Jennifer and I are now BFF’s. We took a tower out of the plan....” Tellingly, the guy with the biggest personal stake in the issue had respect for Keesmaat and her position, whereas the journalist had none.
If ever Toronto’s media needs to treat mayoral candidates fairly, it is in 2018 when the alternatives are so stark, and the stakes are so high. In 2014, Tory and Ford differed more in style than in the substance of their platforms. Even if they differed on routes, they were both plumping for hideously expensive subways, subways, subways. Both were vigorous defenders of car culture. Both were unconcerned by inappropriate police powers. Both were against any new initiatives or investments that might require a tax increase. The media could afford to dump on Chow, Stintz, and Socknyacki, confident that it would create a tighter and more dramatic race to cover. They don’t have that luxury now.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Tory represents the past, with his cautious, reactionary, incremental approach to government and Keesmaat represents an untested experiment, with a planner’s orientation to the future. They bring entirely different tool boxes to the job of making Toronto better. There’s nothing to be gained and much to be lost by crippling them in the media before the campaign starts in earnest. The winner is going to need a strong mandate in what is going to be a tough fight with the Province for control of the city’s future, so this is no time for spurious character assassinations.
Maybe Levy and the editors at The Sun know only one way to sell papers. Maybe they understand politics only as a blood sport. But that’s not good enough. This time, we’ve got to do better.