Smoke, lies, and videotape

For one investigative reporter, professional integrity trumps scooping the competition

Revealing behind the curtain
Image Credit: Samantha Mash

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 30 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

Investigative reporter Kevin Donovan has built a sterling reputation over the past three-plus decades at The Toronto Star. He’s covered two wars and currently leads team of eight journalists, the biggest investigative unit of any Canadian print publication.

It’s the kind of hard-won credibility Donovan didn’t want to jeopardize, even when The Toronto Star received a massive scoop back in 2013 about Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford smoking crack.

“I actually didn’t care that [Ford] was smoking drugs,” explains Donovan. “What I cared about is who he was smoking drugs with. [Ford] said he was a law and order politician.” Donovan thought exposing Ford’s illegal behavior, especially in the company of drug and gun dealers, would matter to Torontonians who expect elected representatives to uphold social standards.

 

Toronto Star newsroom
Kevin Donovan in Toronto Star newsroom with colleague David Bruser / Photographs courtesy of The Toronto Star

 

It was Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle who first got the tip about the video and when she told Donovan at the investigative unit, he wasn’t surprised that there could be a big scandal with the mayor. “I remember on election night thinking, I’m going to deal with this guy,” Donovan recalls. Reporting on Ford, he adds, “sticks out in my mind as a time of great chaos.”

 

front page of Toronto Star
One of Kevin Donovan’s front page stories in The Toronto Star about Rob Ford

 

And yet, whenever The Toronto Star released another scathing exposé on the beleaguered leader’s bad behavior, it only seemed to boost Ford’s approval rating among his rabid devotees. Often, reporting that was critical of the beatified mayor would lead to a spate of newspaper subscription cancellations.

“I’d never seen anything like this in all my time as a reporter,” Donovan recalls of the cult of personality Ford cultivated. “People are going up to him just trying to touch him and maybe get a word with him.”

Hailing from a wealthy family, Ford rose to power as a glad-handing populist. Once in office, though, reports often surfaced of Ford’s drunken debauchery — allegations Ford would deny unless evidence emerged. This made the enterprising reporter ever more committed to shining a light on Ford’s offensive and possibly illegal behavior.

 

Getting scooped is the fear that gets Donovan out of the bed every morning. But seemingly at odds with that anxiety is his reliance on relationship-based reporting, nurturing connections to confirm facts rather than running a half-baked story.

 

press conference
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford meets with reporters following admission to using crack cocaine

 

Donovan’s convictions about Ford were solidified when a broker approached The Toronto Star, offering a video of Ford smoking with his dealers in exchange for a six-figure payment. It would have been a major story for Donovan, and for The Toronto Star.

Getting scooped is the fear that gets Donovan out of the bed every morning. But seemingly at odds with that anxiety is his reliance on relationship-based reporting, nurturing connections to confirm facts rather than running a half-baked story.

Moreover, at a storied institution such as The Toronto Star, the checkbook journalism required to get that recording has never been the norm.

“You don’t want to do a story and then have everybody saying that you got it wrong.” Accuracy in the bedrock of good reporting, and Donovan notes another reason reporting must be precise. “Our business is going through a very difficult time right now.” To lose readers is to lose revenue that funds everything from reporters’ salaries to printing costs.

Several months after he’d seen the video, getting scooped is what drove Donovan back to the newsroom late one night. Online news outlet Gawker had run a story about the video, albeit with some mistakes. “We had to act really fast,” Donovan says of trying to play catch-up with the now-defunct website. “Still primarily being a print organization, we [at The Toronto Star] have a hard deadline of about 11 p.m. at night to get the edition out on the street at six o’clock in the morning.”

Following the Gawker write-up, Donovan thought his team’s ironclad reporting about the video would be Ford’s undoing.

Instead, the public turned on The Toronto Star. “I think we lost over half a million dollars in subscription money very, very quickly when that first crack video story came out.”

 

reporters asking questions
The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno and Kevin Donovan question Police Chief Bill Blair as he talks to the media about the raids in which two people were arrested who appeared in a photo with Rob Ford in a reputed crack house

 

The paper didn’t go under, and Ford remained popular until he passed away from cancer in 2016. After Ford’s death, the Toronto police released the video to the public. Donovan is chagrined that exposing Ford’s misconduct didn’t diminish the politician’s fan base, but he remains committed to exposing corruption while adhering to a high journalistic standard — even if it takes extra time and resources.

“Politicians and journalists don’t [and shouldn’t] get along,” Donovan urges. “We’re not in this together, and journalists have to try even harder to get these stories out. Journalists are the watchdogs.”

 

Work in Progress story produced by Lily Ames.

 

Journalist and writer Brittany Shoot does not pal around with politicians.

 

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