Getting outfoxed by a lame duck

by gord on March 11, 2010

It’s 6:12 p.m. on Tuesday and my newsroom receives a release from the City of Toronto advising Hogtown’s media horde “Mayor David Miller to make important announcement“. Other than the date, time and location the communiqué reveals nothing more about the mysterious presser booked for just over 15 hours from now.

Given that media types tend to be imaginative sorts (and political journos chief among them) speculation about what could be so urgent and needed to be delivered so cryptically almost reached JFK assassination conspiracy theory proportions.

Some thought that Miller was going to announce that he had changed his mind and would seek a third term.  With his golden boy Adam Giambrone’s campaign stillborn (due to the TTC chair’s office couch tryst with a 19-year-old) and the leading mayoral candidates pledging to undo much of his legacy, many thought that Miller would grab his trusty broom from the closet and charge once more into the breach. Others felt that he would tell the world that he was quitting to give his new heir apparent Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone a chance to run the city and prove to potential George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi voters that there was still life in the city’s left. The mayor’s flacks were as silent as monks on the matter so journalist and citizen alike were left to wait and ponder just what wonders of would await us with the dawn.

The city held its collective breath. Miller haters gnashed their teeth, worried that eight years of their antagonist may turn into a dozen. His acolytes slept well, dreaming dreams of a new term and four more years of Toronto the Good.

At the appointed hour the city’s media ground to a halt. Broadcasts were pre-empted so Miller’s historic words could be carried live to homes and offices across the Big Smoke. Newspapers were poised to flash the great revelation to their readers through all the methods at our disposal.

The moment came.

Miller started to speak.

At first his words seemed to confirm the prevailing wisdom. He spoke about announcing important plans for 2010 and 2011. He talked about Torontonians sharing his vision of a prosperous, liveable city.

And then…

He announced that the city had a $100-million budget surplus.

What?!?

Yep, this was nothing more than a budget announcement.

So why all the chicanery?

It’s the election stupid.

The big knock against Miller and his posse is that they aren’t good managers of city finances. Critics say all they want to do is throw tax money at whatever so-called progressive impulses come across their collective lefty mind without regard for the long-term financial consequences. It’s a perception that must be corrected before the election if Miller Time is to continue past October.

OK, but there’s no way that the press in the country’s most competitive market would have blown off a budget announcement of this magnitude, so why the ruse?

Miller knew that if he left the story in the hands of the media he’d get the coverage that news of this nature deserved – front page stories, hits on the local TV and radio news and discussion about it for a few days afterwards. Important, but blink and you might miss it. What it wouldn’t have seen were the satellite trucks, the live feeds and the buzz over what he might announce. Miller’s people wanted to disintermediate their message and talk directly to the voters. Not the public per se, but the sort of engaged folk who told their boss that their bus was late just so they wouldn’t miss the 9:30 statement. These are the people who will decide the election by answering the questions of their less engaged friends, by appearing intelligent during dinner party conversations about municipal politics and informed to strangers overhearing their opinions on some patio during the dénouement of summer.

The mayor and his people knew this and they took their shot.

Miller cried wolf and we in the media came a runnin’.

We fell for it… hard. So hard that it reminded me of a press conference once called by Tom Green and Monica Lewinsky. It received international attention as it was widely speculated the pair were going to get hitched (a match made in the National Enquirer to be sure). In the end it was a publicity stunt for her new line of purses and fodder for his TV show.

Green paid a price for abusing the media as we started to ignore his antics and choked off his conduit to fame.

But as much as some media people would like to do the same to Miller after his bait-and-switch, we can’t stop reporting on the mayor of Toronto. Even so, I don’t think Miller and his communications team would ever have contemplated such a move if he were seeking another term. Miller made us look foolish. We’re supposed to know what’s going on and tell the city what’s important and what isn’t. He pantsed us in front of the whole schoolyard. And while I don’t know any reporter who risk ruining their reputation to get Miller back over this incident, it has burned up a lot of goodwill between the mayor and the press gallery. But since he’s gone in seven months he’s got little to lose and a legacy he wants to protect.

Perhaps the biggest question is how did the paid (and the voluntary) punditocarcy miss the fact that this “important announcement” likely had nothing to do with Miller’s political future?

The signs were there if anyone bothered to put the pieces together. Chief among them is the fact that the original release came not only from Don Wanagas (Miller’s personal director of communications) but Kevin Sack, Wanagas’ counterpart on city staff who normally wouldn’t have any part in political announcements.

In truth some did question the conventional wisdom. My friend and City Hall Bureau Chief Kris Scheuer did suggest via Twitter that the press conference might not have to do with Miller’s electoral future (although she later admitted that she was sucked in like everyone else), but those voices were drowned out by the intoxicating rhythm of what might be a really, really exciting story.

And in some ways that’s what it came down to for us in the media. We wanted an exciting story. We were lusting after another game changer in the 2010 election. We’d entered the phony war stage and we wanted to see some action.

Instead, we got punked.

It looks like Lewinsky handbags are in this spring for the journalistic class.

Let’s just hope they go out of style before fall.

Gordon Cameron is the Managing Editor of the Town Crier Newspapers in Toronto and frequent W-lister commentator.

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