Did the Toronto Star offer $40K to crack dealers for the Rob Ford video?

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By now, everyone should know the basic outline of the Rob Ford crack cocaine story: Mayor allegedly hangs out with drug dealers, does drugs, gets filmed doing drugs, then the drug dealers try to sell the video.

Is such a video worth buying? Gawker evidently thinks so, and although they weren’t willing to pay “six figures” for it originally, their crowd-funding effort to raise $200,000 seems to be going well.

But there is one element of the story that isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

Gawker’s editor John Cook says the drug dealers he dealt with had gotten a $40,000 offer from a Canadian news outlet they rejected as too low. The only journalists to have seen the video other than Cook are Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle, the Toronto Star reporters who published their own version of the story after Gawker broke the news.

So, did the Toronto Star offer $40,000 to the drug dealers in exchange for the video?

A panel discussion on CBC’s The National on Friday featured both Cook and Doolittle, who said her newspaper had never made an “official” offer for the video. That seems like a bad way to say “No we never offered to buy the video” if that were actually the case.

When pressed on the question, Doolittle said, “It was a reporting tactic, the Star never intended to pay $40,000.”

This would seem to leave us with two possibilities:

  1. The Toronto Star wanted to buy the video (chequebook journalism!) but simply couldn’t afford $100,000.
  2. The Star never intended to buy the video and was merely stringing the men along.

There is nothing intrinsically evil about paying for information, but there are practical reasons why it shouldn’t become the norm in journalism.

There’s also limited sympathy for the video peddlers even if the Star was misleading them. After all, these are men who, regardless of their illicit business, filmed one of their clients in a vulnerable state in order to damage him and get rich (allegedly, allegedly, allegedly).

But it’s probably important to know whether the Toronto Star, the largest circulation daily in Canada, now pays sources for information or if, alternatively, the paper was lying to its sources. Especially if the idea of Gawker raising $200,000 is eliciting so much animosity, is $40,000 that much better?

Emails to editor Michael Cooke and the two Star reporters who conducted the investigation have so far gone unanswered.

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