Is the media industry in Canada too cozy for its own good?
Over the past year, the journalist Jesse Brown has been like an action star in a Hollywood blow-'em-up: throwing fireballs and kicking asses. Since launching his podcast and website Canadaland in the fall of 2013, he has spilled secrets about newsroom misdeeds, broken stories about TV journalists taking money from groups they cover, and challenged reporting that he believes has fallen short.
Brown, 37, a Toronto-based former CBC staffer who has also contributed to Maclean's, Toronto Life, TVOntario and others, positioned himself as a lone wolf, a fearless David taking on the Goliath of Canadian corporate media. In an essay published by Walrus magazine last June, Nobody's a Critic, he alleged that he had had difficulty booking guests because journalists feared "repercussions" if they went on the record with their own critiques: "Canadian media is insular, heavily concentrated in Toronto, and more of a club than an industry."
Still, Brown cultivated a dedicated if relatively small following, even as many fans within that Toronto-based club/industry occasionally rolled their eyes over his love of self-promotion and what they saw as some slipshod practices: After all, they said, nobody else was holding their bosses to account.
That includes my own employer. In fact, Brown's first Canadaland effort was a video mocking The Globe and Mail's coverage of millennials; we have remained one of his favourite targets. He reported a story last spring that our editor-in-chief David Walmsley overturned the editorial board's recommendation to endorse Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, in favour of Tim Hudak's PCs. (A few newspaper vets who don't work here e-mailed me asking why it was a story, since Walmsley, as the head of the editorial board, has final say on endorsements.) In June, when The Globe's staff and management were negotiating a new contract, he reported on proposals by the publisher that could have led to journalists working on sponsored content in the future. (It was dropped, thankfully.)
This week, Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former chief journalist of CBC Radio who is now director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto, told me: "In the absence of a Frank magazine – as it was, years ago – Jesse is kind of fulfilling that role: relief of the pressure inside media organizations."
Last October, Brown crashed into the mainstream with his monster scoop, executed with the investigative reporter Kevin Donovan and the Toronto Star, about CBC host Jian Ghomeshi's alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Toronto Life, Huffington Post and the Canadian Jewish News published admiring profiles. Journalists and others lauded him on Twitter and Facebook for his bravery. A crowdfunding initiative he started in October is now pulling in more than $9,000 a month. (Disclosure: I am one of the funders.)
In numerous interviews, Brown has cited the website Gawker, the New York Times media columnist David Carr and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as inspirations. The problem is, he tries to embody all three – trafficking in Gawker-like gossip and innuendo, mocking pomposity like Stewart and pronouncing from on high like Carr – even though they're essentially antithetical. Carr relishes a juicy takedown as much as anyone, but he would never publish allegations and rumour, which is Gawker's stock-in-trade. Jon Stewart insists he cannot be held to the standards of journalism because, as a comedian, his primary allegiance is to the joke rather than the facts.
It's hard to pin down Brown's primary allegiance, because he has a track record of playing fast and loose with facts. Some years ago, while developing his show The Contrarians for CBC Radio, he faked a scene for the pilot. When producers discovered what had happened, they hit the roof and killed the episode. It never aired. This week, he told me the experience was "surreal," that he had simply "re-created" a scene, and in any case it was for a humorous bit rather than a piece of documentary journalism. (That is not how staff there remember the incident.)
I had reached out to Brown because Canadaland had just published another story which landed like a bombshell. Sean Craig, a freelancer Brown hired last month on a part-time basis, charged that, in the spring of 2013, CBC's senior business correspondent Amanda Lang had conducted a "shocking campaign … to sabotage a major story" a colleague had done about the Royal Bank of Canada's use of the controversial Temporary Foreign Workers program because RBC had "paid her" for speeches and appearances. Mouths agape, reporters from coast to coast (and even outside Canada) passed the story around with glee or shock or sometimes both. (Disclosure: The Globe had a minor role in the drama. Lang approached us with an op-ed on the foreign-workers issue, which we published.)
It seemed to be a hell of a story, especially because it followed another piece from last month about Lang accepting money from Manulife for moderating a pair of seminars, and from Sun Life for giving a speech. There's no doubt: CBC still has a problem with paid appearances.
But a close reading of Canadaland's reporting suggests its explosive claims in this story weren't supported by the facts it had in hand. The sum total of Lang's "campaign" seemed to be her participation in a phone call which Raj Ahluwalia, a CBC producer, this week told the Toronto Star he had invited her to be on. There was no firm evidence, as Canadaland alleged, that CBC changed course on the story because of Lang's involvement. Even the provable financial connections between the parties were thinner than promised.
The editor-in-chief of CBC News and Centres, Jennifer McGuire, fired back at Canadaland with a memo noting the story "deliberately made false assumptions and left out important facts."
Brown told The Canadian Press that he stood by the piece. And then he doubled down, arguing that CBC's response to the episode echoed their handling of the Ghomeshi troubles. "Rather than showing a legitimate curiosity at some well-substantiated allegations and a curiosity to know if in fact their journalism was sound, it was a rally-around-the-host, protect-the-host mentality."
Hearing his attempt to draw a parallel between Lang and Ghomeshi, some fans began rolling their eyes again.
And it occurred to me that maybe there are some parallels between Ghomeshi and Brown, another charismatic rebel who has amassed a loyal and sometimes fierce following. Are Brown's fans, like Ghomeshi's managers at CBC, overlooking the faults in their star?
In the ensuing days, I began to hear from supporters of Brown's who were disappointed both in the journalism and his dismissal of the legitimate criticisms of Craig's work. But others rallied around Brown. When Steve Faguy, a blogger with the Montreal Gazette, noted this week that "Canadaland has a habit of sensationalizing and editorializing," and that its "case for a financial relationship with RBC is extremely weak," one of Brown's biggest supporters tore a strip off Faguy on Twitter.
And in an astonishing, frankly worrying illustration of how noxious CBC has become, post-Ghomeshi, some journalists there told me that, even if the story was shoddy, they were willing to forgive Brown because he had gotten their bosses to take another look at the practice of permitting paid speeches. (Nobody, even his supporters who spoke to me, would go on the record, out of fear of attracting Brown's attention.)
More disclosure: I've had my own struggles trying to get Brown to correct his errors. My name came up during a Canadaland podcast with Linden MacIntyre last spring, when Brown suggested that I had misquoted a CBC executive. After I sent e-mails to Brown walking him through my reporting, and he realized the mistake was his and not mine, he replied: "I am now torn between my duty to correct even minor and niggling errors, and the sincere pleasure I take in irritating you." He's funny, truly, even if his sense of humour can be an acquired taste.
Then, last November, after the Sun Media commentator Ezra Levant attacked Ontario's Greater Essex County District School Board for issuing a memo that supposedly said "teachers should be prepared to exempt Muslim students from Remembrance Day" – an incorrect allegation on Levant's part – Brown flew to his defence. In a podcast, he charged that the school board had tried to cover its tracks when other reporters (including myself) came calling about the memo. "They totally [expletive deleted] lied about it," Brown said. "They completely doctored the document after the fact."
That sounded to me like libel. I actually had the original memo: The school board had done nothing of the sort. So, in a long back-and-forth with Brown over e-mail and Twitter DMs, I tried to explain where he went wrong. Finally, on a podcast one week later, after I nudged him some more, he announced a correction.
But the original podcast is still up on his site, uncorrected and unedited, with nary a note about the false allegation.
At least those efforts bore fruit. On another occasion, when I challenged him about an assertion he'd made on a podcast, he replied that the bit was not reporting, as it had seemed, but "clearly hypothetical speculation." That is: He was not in David Carr mode, he was just being Canadian Gawker. Or maybe Jon Stewart, I'm not sure.
Earlier this week, I asked Jeffrey Dvorkin if he was uncomfortable with Brown's occasional disregard for the facts.
"I just think he's fulfilling a role," he replied. "Whether he's doing it well or not is sort of like – what is the line about an animal walking on its hind legs? 'It's not done well, but the fact that it's done at all is what's impressive.' So – I think the quality of media criticism in Canada is good and could be better. And if Jesse's contributing in some way to that, I'm all in favour of it."
When Brown announced his crowdfunding initiative last fall, I tweeted that I was supporting him and I hoped others would step up too, so he could afford the time to fact-check his reporting before publishing. I was only half-kidding. Brown is blowing up big now, proving out one new model for Canadian journalism and media criticism which might lead to dozens of similar sites. He visited Dvorkin's class this week to speak with students, conducted an Ask Me Anything Q&A on Reddit, and was the first guest of a new U.S. podcast.
Last fall, a Montreal-based freelancer working on a profile of Brown for the Columbia Journalism Review asked me for my thoughts. At the end of our chat, he revealed that he was taken aback: I was the only person he'd spoken to who had anything critical to say about Brown.
He didn't end up quoting me.
Is the media industry in Canada too cozy? You tell me.
Editor's note: The original version of this story said that while journalist Jesse Brown was developing a show for CBC Radio, he faked a scene for the pilot. This version has been changed to clarify that the scene did not air.