In May 2013, Gawker editor John Cook received a tip that the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, had a habit of smoking crack cocaine, that a video existed showing the mayor smoking crack, and that the video could be available to a media outlet under the right terms. Cook traveled to Toronto, met with the sources under sketchy conditions (and, it would later emerge, under police surveillance), and watched the video. The terms were that the video could be had for $200,000.
A week later, Cook published a story describing the video and explaining that it was being offered for sale. The Toronto Star followed by writing a story about how its reporters had also seen the video. Until Gawker published Cook’s story, though, the Star had not seen a way to make what its reporters had seen with their own eyes into a printable story of its own.
Journalistic epistemology can intersect with journalistic ethics in awkward ways. Ford denied smoking crack, and while the reporters who had seen the video knew that he was lying, it was the mayor’s word against theirs. The simplest way to resolve the dispute would have been to publish the video, so the public could watch Rob Ford smoking crack with their own eyes.
Unlike some other journalistic outlets, Gawker has no objection to paying sources for newsworthy materials. The $200,000 price tag was beyond Gawker’s editorial budget, however. So we asked the public to help us crowdfund the price of the video. Despite the complaints of ethicists, the Canadian public, eager to resolve the question of whether the mayor of the largest city in Canada smoked crack, enthusiastically met the fundraising goal.
Unfortunately, by the end of the funding campaign, the negotiations with the people possessing the video had collapsed. The police and people who were emphatically not the police were also seeking it. There was a claim that the video might have been “gone.”
Eventually, we donated the proceeds to charity, and Rob Ford’s career unraveled by other means, including the appearance of a second video of him using drugs. He admitted to smoking crack. The police confirmed that the video did exist, and said that they had it. He was diagnosed with cancer and withdrew from the 2014 mayoral race. His brother Doug Ford—who by then had been accused in the suddenly liberated Canadian media of having been a hash dealer in his youth—ran for mayor in his place, and lost.
In March, Rob Ford died of cancer. Today, prosecutors dropped extortion charges against Ford’s friend Rob Lisi and, as part of the evidence of the abandoned case, released the original video of the mayor smoking crack. Here it is, via the Globe And Mail.