Jesse Brown punctures Canada’s media bubble

The independent journalist uses his website and podcast to break stories that might otherwise go unpublished
January 5, 2015

(Debra Friedman)

In early 2014, news circulated online that two high-profile personalities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had been making paid speeches to oil lobbyists. A video surfaced in which Rex Murphy, a longtime radio host and TV pundit for the public broadcaster, stellified the industry for its “technological wizardry,” and a 2012 photo emerged of the CBC’s chief correspondent, Peter Mansbridge, behind a lectern emblazoned with the logo of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

A minor debate in the national press ensued, in which the discussion was less about the problem of a reporter not disclosing payments from a player in one of Canada’s most contentious issues and more about the question of whether opinions had actually been bought. The answer from the journalists and their editors was a resolute “No.” (Murphy is a consistent supporter of Alberta oil sands development and a climate-change denier.) In the end, aside from wounded pride, Murphy and Mansbridge emerged unscathed. The short lifespan and blasé tone of the discussion was just another example of how Canada’s cozy media world is loathe to speak ill of itself. While the United States has mobs of writers ready to make hay of, say, Jonah Lehrer’s transgressions, its northern neighbor’s journalistic gentility allows Margaret Wente, a prominent columnist for Canada’s newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail, to keep her job after multiple charges of plagiarism.

CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi was charged with sexual assault a month after Brown’s story broke.

In the middle of the oil-speech controversy was an independent journalist named Jesse Brown. On his website and podcast, Canadaland, he picked up the story and added to it by confirming that Mansbridge had accepted payment from the producers association. More telling than the revelation was Brown’s source: an anonymous journalist who had done the actual reporting and handed the information to Brown. “The journalist said, ‘My news organization would not be comfortable with me reporting that,’ and this organization wasn’t the CBC,” recalled Brown. “That tells you what’s lacking in Canada.”

Brown, 37, has stepped onto the Canadian media’s tiny, packed elevator, and while others wrinkle their noses and keep quiet, he asks, “Who farted?” In the past year, Canadaland has reported on internal memos from The Globe detailing its proposal to have reporters write “branded content”; revealed how a CBC reporter “stonewalled” one of Glenn Greenwald’s stories from the Edward Snowden documents; and broke news of the allegedly violent sex life of one of Canada’s most prominent media personalities. A journalist accused him of “journatrolling;” even a fan called him a “pompous dick.” But very quickly, Brown has drawn a paying audience and a handful of media insiders who feed him information that makes their colleagues–and certainly their bosses–squirm.

Brown’s journalistic troublemaking began in high school, when, inspired by punk ‘zines and “too many” viewings of Pump Up the Volume, he started his own newspaper, Punch (unaware of the British humor magazine of the same name). He soon got attention by publishing a poll of students ranking their teachers. The principal banned the newspaper, which turned Punch into a local story and won Brown a high school journalism award in 1996. A Toronto magazine called Brown an “obnoxious entrepreneur with soul.”

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In the early 2000s, at the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine, Brown was a humorist and prankster, staging publicity stunts to hoodwink journalists. He distributed a phony press kit advertising a fake “lad mag” for the “adequate man” that received credulous national coverage before a few journalists decided to contact some of the magazine’s supposed advertisers, and The Toronto Star called Brown’s victims for comment.

Brown moved into radio and hosted two shows for the CBC. He wrote columns for Maclean’s and Toronto Life, mostly on technology issues. As he gradually became part of the establishment that he had been so keen to mock, Brown noticed a paucity of outlets for discussing the problems in Canadian media that he and his colleagues were continually whinging about. The country has no one like New York Times columnist David Carr to scrutinize the ever-conglomerating media, and when the Prime Minister has the police prevent a Chinese journalist from asking a question at a press conference, John Oliver isn’t there to skewer the absurdity.

Comparisons to America are inevitable when Canadians discuss their inadequacies. Brown wanted local counterparts to The Daily Show and NPR’s On the Media. CBC TV’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report occasionally tackle media issues, but usually with parody rather than satire or analysis–and their audiences are dominated by people over 50. Brown, who is tall, friendly-faced, and casual, speaks in a charmingly crass way that is at odds with the Baby-Boomer personalities of the CBC.

He began pitching a media-criticism podcast to Maclean’s and other print outlets. CBC TV expressed interest in the idea of a media analysis show for a younger set, and, according to Brown, everyone thought that he was onto something–but no one wanted to create a venue in which the hosting organization would be forced to open itself up to jabs.

Brown’s choice was to abandon the idea or pursue it independently. He managed to secure a six-month sponsorship deal from an accounting software firm, and Canadaland launched in late 2013 with a video of him and another journalist taking potshots at The Globe‘s grumbling coverage of millennials and a podcast conversation with Michael Enright, a beloved CBC radio veteran who has hosted current affairs and documentary shows for more than 20 years.

Brown took on the national press with a mix of industry news, media analysis, and gossip. It’s hard to imagine the invective of such fire-breathers as Glenn Greenwald or Matt Taibbi having a place in Canada’s prim news establishment, but Brown is attempting to glean from those styles a method for elucidating the public in complicated stories. “I am unapologetically sensational,” he says. “I’m trying to get people to engage in wonky issues.” While The Globe expressed confusion over the non-reaction to news that the country’s NSA counterpart had been pulling Canadian citizens’ metadata from public Wi-Fi connections, Brown placed the blame squarely on the media’s failure to present the subject with the appropriate amount of “heat.”

Part of what made him stand out immediately was that Brown spoke in a voice different from the standard Canadian cardboard broadcast tone–that is to say, he sounded like a normal person. And he has been able to elicit that quality from his guests. Hearing Enright call The Globe a “lousy newspaper” and acknowledge the CBC’s fear of examining itself is a bizarre experience for those who grew up knowing only his on-air gravitas. Such veteran journalists as Linden MacIntyre and Susan Delacourt have also spoken candidly with Brown about their jobs in a way that is thoroughly unfamiliar to popular audiences in Canada.

“There’s a kind of coziness to the media culture in Canada,” says Jeffrey Dvorkin, a one-time guest of Canadaland and a journalism professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. (He also is a former editor at the CBC and ombudsman for NPR.) “Part of it is because media organizations are in such a precarious place, as they are in the United States, but the economy of scale means that everything is a little bit more fragile in Canada. Media criticism is seen as pissing in your own swimming pool.”

The freshness of Canadaland has allowed Brown to play off of the tension among frustrated and worried journalists. In 2014, the CBC announced that it would have to cut $130 million from its budget because of a reduction in federal funding and the loss of broadcast rights for the National Hockey League. Thousands of people were likely to lose their jobs.

CBC management had an online Q&A session last summer with employees about the coming changes, which was published on an internal website. A CBC North reporter forwarded it to Brown. “I don’t think it was scandalous information. If anything, I was just trying to illustrate how little we knew,” says the reporter, who compared management’s answers to “an octopus creating a blast of ink before swimming away.”

Brown’s willingness to violate the national media’s decorum has made him the outlet for leaks about the inside workings of the mainstream press. He reported from a source inside The Globe that the top editor went over the heads of the editorial board and at the last moment switched the paper’s endorsement for the Ontario provincial election. Canadaland published a story on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s neglect of Arctic issues that had been spiked by a national news organization.

Brown’s style borders on scurrilous and makes him prone to speculation and hasty reporting. When Canadaland published an article on Glenn Greenwald’s disappointment in his partnership with The Globe, Brown initially wrote that the former editor of the paper “ignored” his request for comment, when in fact Brown had just missed the editor’s email. He ran a correction a few hours after the article was posted, but even minor mistakes in Canada can be devastating for journalists who lack libel insurance or a backing organization.

In Canada, plaintiffs in libel suits–public figures or not–must only prove that the statements in question were published, defamatory, and referred to them. From that point on, the publisher and journalist are guilty until proven innocent.

In 2012, Conrad Black, the Canadian press baron, launched a $1.2 million lawsuit against Random House Canada for publishing the book The Thieves of Bay Street, about his exploits while running Hollinger International Inc., the former publisher of The Chicago Sun-Times. One of the allegedly libelous statements was the author’s reference to Black’s “corporate kleptocracy,” a phrase taken from a publicly available report, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The defenses against a libel charge are limited, and until recently the law often required journalists to prove the truth of all impugned statements, which meant that errors in reporting or the inability to provide courtroom evidence could invalidate any defense. In 2009, a pair of rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada granted publishers and reporters the defense of “responsible communication,” which allows defendants to beat a libel suit if they can prove that the published material was in the public interest and responsibly reported.

“Responsible communication” may mean suits like Black’s will ultimately fail, but the defense has not been rigorously tested and the low standards for launching a libel lawsuit, warranted or not, still play into the calculations of journalists and publishers.

In spring 2014, Brown began to investigate allegations that one of CBC Radio’s most popular hosts, Jian Ghomeshi, had been using his fame to meet women whom he then sexually assaulted. Brown feared that if he published a story based on anonymous sources on Canadaland, he would be sued and characterized as a crackpot blogger. So he took it to The Toronto Star. Working with the paper’s lead investigative reporter, Kevin Donovan, they continued the investigation until last September, when they pulled back, in part because none of the three women they interviewed had gone to the police or were willing to be identified.

The story was in limbo, and Brown was unwilling to pursue it alone. When he contacted Ghomeshi, his lawyers threatened to sue should the allegations go public. “I got two kids and a house,” says Brown, “and this is asking me to put my money where my mouth is.”

Then, in late October, Brown broke the news on Twitter that the CBC had put Ghomeshi on indefinite leave. The host attempted to get ahead of the story and posted a Facebook message claiming that he had been punished because of his interest in BDSM, which came to the CBC’s attention only because of false allegations made by “a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer [Brown].” The Star published Brown and Donovan’s story several hours after Ghomeshi’s explanation went up, saying that the Facebook statement gave the reporting legitimacy.

It was easily Brown’s biggest hit in his nascent career as the scourge of Canadian media. After it was published, a number of other women came forward, some publicly, to speak of similar experiences with Ghomeshi, who was charged with sexual assault a month after the story broke. Brown’s Twitter followers tripled and downloads of his podcast spiked.

Brown pays $460 a month for a shared studio space in downtown Toronto that includes access to a recording room and space for his desk. He records the podcast in a small, sweaty booth littered with mic cables and keyboards. Guests sit across from Brown with two TV trays between them supporting a laptop and a mishmash of recording equipment. The booth narrows to a point so that in much of it one can touch both walls at the same time. For the first year, Brown (with help from an intern) was Canadaland’s sole editor, producer, pundit, and reporter. He only recently hired a producer to assist with the podcast.

After the first six-month sponsorship deal elapsed, advertisements by Squarespace and Audible.com helped cover costs, but Canadaland was operating at a loss and consuming much of Brown’s time. In September, he wasn’t sure whether Canadaland could continue despite its growing popularity. Episodes of his podcast were being downloaded on average between 10,000 and 15,000 times.

In October, Brown launched a crowdfunding campaign in which listeners could sign on as monthly subscribers, while all of his content would remain free. He was not interested in the intermittent blasts of cash that come with typical crowdfunding models; he needed Canadaland to be a stable business. In little more than a week, he had $4,000 a month committed from nearly 1,000 subscribers, most of whom were paying between $4 and $7 per month. Along with supplemental ad revenue, he says that allows him to pursue the job full time.

By December, he had 1,551 subscribers paying him $7,686 a month–$3,686 of which will go to build a freelance fund to feature more stories by other journalists.

In contrast to his journalistic flamboyance, Brown’s approach to staying alive in Canada’s frigid media landscape has been to build his business slowly. “I don’t have any designs on building an empire and immediately hiring 10 people and having a slick office space,” says Brown. And despite fielding new interest from investors, he believes the core of his funding has to be from his audience.

The Ghomeshi story has helped on that front–and on other fronts, too. Downloads of his podcast–which he upped to two shows a week–jumped to around 20,000 in its wake. Paid subscribers continued to increase. He assigned more stories to freelancers. Canadaland began to consistently rank high in Canada’s iTunes podcasts charts, sometimes beating out This American Life and Serial.

When Brown hits the $10,000-a-month mark, which he is closing in on faster than expected, he has promised his audience that he will build his own news outlet, featuring daily content, another podcaster to cover only politics, and contracted freelancers who will go after the pile of leads Brown gets but can’t chase himself.

At this point, Brown will either manage to build a viable business or do something else. Having scrutinized so many of his former employers, the “stink” he put on himself would be hard to wash off. “If it didn’t work out,” he says, “I would not be able to return to the Canadian media.”

Simon Liem is a journalist in Montreal, Quebec. His last piece for CJR was on comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. His work has also appeared in Harper’s Magazine and The Walrus.