Before the Rob Ford Crackstarter—our crowdfunding effort to purchase and publish a video of Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine—reached its $200,000 goal last month, we let everyone know that we had lost contact with the people who have custody of the video. At the end of last week, after a long silence, the video's owner reached out to the intermediary we have been dealing with. He told him the video is "gone."
What does that mean? We don't really know. A few days after we posted our story about having viewed the video in a car in a parking lot in Toronto, the owner went silent. Two Toronto Star reporters had quickly followed our report, claiming to have seen the same video. Both Gawker and the Star reporters were introduced to the owner of the video by the same intermediary.
The attention surrounding the breaking of the story had two important consequences: First, the owner of the video became angry at us, and at the intermediary. The owner was trying to sell the video, but he apparently didn't want or anticipate the media circus that erupted after the story broke. We decided to break it, with the consent of the intermediary, after a CNN reporter called one of Ford's ex-staffers about the video and word started to get out. The CNN reporter had learned about the video after we confidentially reached out to the network in an effort to partner in purchasing it.
Our decision to publish was informed by 1) a desire to get ahead of any rival stories that the gossip mill might generate and 2) a fear that, once Ford was privately alerted to the existence of the video, he would start trying to track it down. That decision lit a match on this story that made it much more difficult—and maybe impossible—to get a deal done and bring the video to the light of day.
Complicating matters was the fact that the Star's coverage contained several details—including the rough location where its reporters viewed the video, the rough location where it was purportedly recorded, a description of the intermediary's line of work, the ethnicity of the intermediary and the owner, and physical details about the video owner's appearance—that may have been helpful in identifying and locating the owner. Indeed, according to the Star and other outlets, Ford himself told his staff that the video could be found at a Toronto address—320 Dixon Rd.—near the location where the Star reporters wrote that they viewed it. (Whether he deduced that location—which may or may not be where the video was actually stored—from the Star's coverage or would have known anyway, we can't say.)
The second consequence was that Toronto's tight-knit Somali ethnic community became angry. The Canadian media seized on the Star's repeated description of the owners as "Somali men involved in the drug trade." The story quickly became about Rob Ford and his "Somali crack dealers," and the Star's public editor subsequently criticized the paper for "going overboard" on the references to the Somali community. We don't know for certain the citizenship or immigration status of the video's owner, but shortly after the story broke, the intermediary told me: "We're all Canadians."
According to the intermediary, these two factors—a fear of being identified, and a strong desire from the Somali community to make the whole thing go away—led the owner of the video to go to ground and soured the owner's relationship with the intermediary. I frankly find it difficult to believe that a crack dealer would be more responsive to the desires of his ethnic community than to a $200,000 bounty. But I have heard independently from others familiar with the goings-on in Toronto that leaders in its Somali community have determined who the owner is and brought intense pressure to bear on him and his family. Toronto's "Little Mogadishu" neighborhood is located in the ward Rob Ford represented when he was a city councillor; though he is a conservative and a racist buffoon, I am told he has long-standing connections to Somali power brokers there.
Which brings us to this past Friday, when the intermediary called to tell me that he had finally heard from the owner. And his message was: "It's gone. Leave me alone." It was, the intermediary told me, a short conversation.
"It's gone" could mean many things. It might mean that the video has been destroyed. It might mean that it has been handed over to Ford or his allies. It might mean that he intends to sell or give it to a Canadian media outlet. It might mean that the Toronto Police Department has seized it and plans to use it as evidence in a criminal investigation. It might mean that it has been transferred to the custody of Somali community leaders for safekeeping. It might be a lie. The intermediary doesn't know. Neither do I.
I do know that Gawker is currently sitting on $184,689.81 collected via our Rob Ford Crackstarter. (That's $201,254 raised in total, less $8,365.23 in fees extracted by PayPal, $8,043.96 taken by Indiegogo, and $155 in contributions raised that we have yet to receive.) It is obviously our hope that someone steps up to claim this money and provides us the video.
The intermediary has claimed that a copy of the video was made and taken outside Toronto for safekeeping. We don't know if that's true, or if it is, whether that copy is also "gone." We can still imagine any number of scenarios in which this video comes to light. If you are reading this, and you have access to the video, and you like money, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If this doesn't happen soon, we will—as we initially promised when we launched the campaign—select a Canadian nonprofit that addresses substance abuse issues to receive the money.
Don't do crack.
[Image by Jim Cooke]