Jesse Brown doesn't mince words.
The man who was the first to report on Jian Ghomeshi's "leave of absence" from the CBC -- which quickly turned into a permanent one -- has spent the last year revolutionizing media criticism in Canada. He speaks with uncommon frankness on his popular podcast "Canadaland" and breaks the kind of stories about Canadian journalism that are usually only shared privately over stiff drinks at the bar.
Sunday night, he broke his biggest story yet (with the help of the Toronto Star): allegations that Ghomeshi has engaged in violent behaviour without consent with a number of women.
Brown gave some details about how the Ghomeshi story, which he says was the result of "months of investigation," came to be in a brief episode of "Canadaland" released early Monday morning. He stressed that he's unable to share many details about the story behind the story but did say that the allegations were originally brought to him. He later took them to the Star and its investigative reporter Kevin Donovan to gain the legal and editorial support of the paper.
"I don't have libel insurance and I don't have editors and colleagues and veteran journalists and lawyers and everything that I needed to feel confident about fully investigating and going out with something like this," he said. "This story has a long way to go."
Brown hinted on his show last week that he was working on a "monster" story that would be "worse than embarrassing for certain parties" and that his credibility would likely be questioned as a result. It seems (fairly) likely that he was referring to the Ghomeshi report.
Story continues after slideshow
Brown, a former CBC radio host and columnist for Maclean's, Toronto Life and Saturday Night, launched "Canadaland" in October of last year with a video criticizing The Globe and Mail for running a long series of stories depicting the Millennial generation as, in his words, "narcissistic", "selfish" and "lazy." And things only got more controversial from there.
He has reported on Peter Mansbridge's paid speaking gigs for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, The Globe and Mail's top editor allegedly spiking an endorsement of Kathleen Wynne during the Ontario election and on leaked CBC documents outlining its new digital strategy.
Just last week he reported that, according to Glenn Greenwald (the man who broke the Edward Snowden story), both The Globe and Mail and CBC have been reluctant to publish new revelations about surveillance in Canada.
He's done all that while releasing a new podcast every Monday featuring conversations with prominent Canadian media types, covering everything from CanCon requirements to the origins of Vice Magazine to the soul of the CBC.
Brown recently launched a fundraising campaign to keep his show alive. He told his listeners earlier this month that everything about the show was working except the financing and made an appeal for donations on the website Patreon, which allows users to make recurring, monthly donations. Since then, nearly 1,000 donors have provided Brown with an income of nearly $5,000 per month to do his show.
The campaign has been so successful that Brown has pledged to begin doing two shows a week. And if he reaches $10,000 per month, he's promised to launch a mini news organization featuring a new show on politics and a roster of freelance journalists.
The Huffington Post Canada spoke with Brown earlier this month about his show, the fundraising campaign, the future of the CBC and why, in his opinion, media criticism in Canada is just lousy. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:
On why he started "Canadaland"
I’m a person who watches The Daily Show and listens to On The Media and reads Gawker, and reads David Carr in The New York Times and I work in the media. I’m interested in the media and I was aware, as I think a lot of people here are, that there’s no equivalent here. Nobody was doing this kind of work as satire, nobody was doing it as journalism, nobody was doing it as gossip. It just wasn’t getting done.
On "Canadaland" almost becoming a CBC show or Maclean’s podcast
I pitched a show to CBC News Network, to do a half-hour weekly media criticism show that they were initially very excited about, they even wanted to do a pilot with me. I was talking to Todd Spencer, who was running the place at the time. And it just sort of disappeared into the bureaucracy there.
Then I was told ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ I think what this other executive told me was ‘Well, we have many internal proposals for the exact same idea and if we were to pursue this we’ll pursue it with our own people.’
Which is like that classic Hollywood reply, we’re rejecting your pitch and if we do the exact same thing we’re not copying you. Of course they never did the same thing.
I pitched it to Maclean’s as a podcast, and again there was a lot of initial interest from my editor there and then it just sort of disappeared into their system. I pitched it as a newspaper column. It was always the same thing. It was not like I would get a message: ‘This is terrible idea we’re not interested.’ I would initially get ‘Oh yeah, somebody should do that sort of thing. Not a bad idea.’ And then it would just never go anywhere.
On why there is a dearth of critical media coverage in Canada
I feel it’s a reflection of the news culture in Canada, it’s a reflection of the size of our industry, which is small and getting smaller. It is Toronto-centric, in fact, you could even pinpoint a few neighbourhoods in Toronto where people who work in the media live. And throughout my career I’ve noticed this.
When I was at the CBC my boss’ husband was a Globe and Mail guy and her boss at the CBC had a husband who was a Globe and Mail guy. Sometimes I would pitch a story on a Monday that would get rejected at the story meeting and it would show up in the husband’s column on a Tuesday.
There was always this sense that everybody knew everybody, the relationships went in between organizations and then when you add to that the rapid job loss situation that’s happening now, it only creates more of a chill. Even any kind of competition that used to make people at least critical of each other’s work, or each other’s news organization, now you can’t even do that. I think it’s felt that if you’re at the Star, don’t talk shit about the Globe because you might be looking for a job there in a month, and vice versa.
On how criticism of journalism changes journalism
I have received leaked information from the CBC, from The Globe and Mail and other news organizations and I’ve published it. So what does that change?
I think what that changes is those organizations are going to be at least a bit more careful of what they commit to in any kind of a paper trail. Maybe they’ll even think twice about some of the things they do when we’re talking about some of the stuff like, the CBC’s sort of dodgy dealing with Parks Canada, money in exchange for news coverage. I think we’ve already seen a change in terms of CBC’s policy about disclosing conflicts of interest with the speaking gigs of hosts. Though, transparency is step one. Having the website is nice, it’s nice to know that Amanda Lang is speaking for the insurance industry and then covering the insurance industry. The next question is: Should she be doing this? But transparency is a start.
I do see things changing. I see things changing like at The Globe -- one of the first things I did was call them out in a satirical way for their relentless trashing of the younger generation. And this sort of constant ad hominem attack, purely just these epithets: ‘narcissistic, selfish, lazy young people.’ And that changed almost overnight. You don’t really read those stories in The Globe anymore.
On why he went with Patreon to raise money instead of Kickstarter or Indiegogo
I didn’t want to extract as much money from my audience as quickly as I could. I didn’t like the artificial urgency that those campaigns have. So as a working journalist, I wanted to create a stable, reliable, source of revenue to keep the show going. I was not looking for a bag of cash to keep the lights on.
The deal for the audience is they can cancel their subscription at any time and so my show better be good, it better be vital and important and substantive and entertaining. Within hours we reached the first goal of $1,000 a month. So I think that there is a larger takeaway here about the Canadian news audience, that there is -- and it’s not just me, you can look at Richochet, you can look at The Tyee and there are other efforts. News consumers are not getting what they need and they’re willing to pay for it.
On such a large proportion of his audience working in the media business, but not speaking out themselves
Oh, it’s hilarious. Half my audience I think works in the media and they are cheering me on. Some of them get in touch kind of privately to cheer me on from within big news organizations and tell me that I’m asking the right questions and keep going with it. I mean all journalists talk about it in private, that was part of my interest in this. Over drinks with journalists you hear amazing stories that are incredibly newsworthy, interesting stories that never make it into print.
I think that the success of this Patreon campaign is a newsworthy media story in Canada, but you won’t find my name mentioned in The Globe and Mail. In fact, the only mainstream news source that has called me besides The Huffington Post in Canada has been Sun. I went on Sun News television. And they played my pitch clip and they talked to me about what’s happening in the media and they talked to me about my show.
So say what you want about Sun, but they were willing to talk about this kind of remarkable thing that’s happening between me and other independent sources, finding paid audiences in Canada. But you’d think that I didn’t exist in any of our big news organization and especially broadcast news and the big newspapers.
On Ezra Levant
I have twice the audience. I read in John Doyle that Ezra Levant, who has created a whole news cycle event by calling the Trudeaus sluts, he’s got 5,000 people. I've got 10,000 people. So Canada is really hilarious. It’s a bizarre place with what’s considered mainstream and what isn’t.
On The Globe allegedly having a hand in killing some of his video efforts
There’s another hilarious backstory with the first batch of videos [I did for "Canadaland"]. I was asked to do them for Bell Local. They were launching this Bell Local thing, which is another hilarious Canadian media story, because it’s pay-per-view local programming. So if there is anything more ghetto and obscure than having like Wayne’s World on at two in the morning on public access, it’s pay-per-view public access. And it was a CRTC requirement.
But there were some really cool people who were put in charge and who were doing the production work and they were looking to really shake up the idea of what public access is.
They asked me to come and do some videos for them. And they made me a great deal where I kept complete copyright to it and they would provide a studio and an editor and the whole deal and even pay me a little bit for it. They were paying me to make my content.
So we did so and the first thing I made was that Globe and Mail hates young people video. I’m told that as soon as John Stackhouse, who was then running The Globe and Mail, saw that, and saw that this was coming out of Bell -- which is of course linked to The Globe -- Wendy Freeman at CTV News got a phone call. Essentially there was a conversation ‘Like why are we paying this guy to drag us through the mud?’ After my contract was done, I have not been asked to make more (laughter).
On how CBC should be more like VICE News
I think that Vice model -- and you have to careful when you say that, I don’t mean the native advertising model, I mean the model of making video news content in a platform-agnostic way and then people come calling because they want that content -- it’s a very good scalable model. I think it’s what the CBC should be doing. I think they should abandon their terrestrial TV operations, they should get out of the TV station business and get into the video content business. Who cares who shows it? We need them to cover the news. Video is a great way to cover certain kinds of news. I really want to see especially young journalists try that.
On doing sponsored content and drinking whisky
Conflicts are conflicts. The question of who is paying you to say this and what their interest is, is a valid one. I’m using my own kind of compass as I seek out partnerships. An energy-sector sponsorship would feel really like, beyond anything about my own personal ethics, I would have a really hard time selling my audience on that and not being called a terrible hypocrite and a sellout. So I can’t do that even if I wanted to do. Would I take on a whisky company? I’d love to, that would be a great fit. And I would integrate that and I would drink whisky as I interviewed my guests.
On Peter Mansbridge and speaking fees
I think that just sort of saying ‘I’m a journalist, trust me, I’m not going to do anything that will influence my journalism’ as Peter Mansbridge has said, that’s not how conflict of interest works. The basic standard that I operate under is if I can explain this to my audience and they accept it then I guess it’s OK. And if I can’t, it probably isn’t. …
You would have a very tough time explaining [this] to journalists in any other part of the world. I’ve said this before, I don’t care if they are paying Mansbridge to opine, to moderate or to juggle -- if you are being paid by a lobby group or an oilsands company on a Monday and you are covering that [organization] as a moderator, host, journalist, as the chief correspondent of the CBC on the air, you need to say so -- on the air. It is an absolute betrayal of the viewer’s trust.
I don’t know what slim percentage of that TV-viewing audience is checking out that disclosure page. I think the disclosure page is a great idea and I’m getting mine up soon. The way I’ve handled this to date is if I feel that there is any possible relationship between who has paid me for some work and who I’m covering, I just disclose.
On the politics show he wants to launch and what he hates about Canadian political coverage
Part of what I try to do with "Canadaland" is have conversations about the media and about Canada that just sound human. Like human beings having a conversation about things that they care about and are important. And that is a tonal element that is absent from all political coverage that I’m aware of in Canada.
To watch the political discourse in Canada, either Question Period or the coverage thereof, you are entering into a bizarre subculture where people speak in a really arcane language.
I’m as turned off by this stuff as everybody else, and I’m less informed politically [than] I’d like to be because I can’t stand the coverage. So I want to know what those off-the-record conversations sound like in Ottawa. I want to know what they sound like between journalists, I want to know, definitely the most guarded people are the politicians themselves. I want this stuff decoded and presented to me in plain English.
On media consolidation and Postmedia buying up the Sun chain of newspapers
I can’t imagine an argument for how that could be a good thing. I heard [President and CEO of Postmedia] Paul Godfrey arguing that the response to the internet is we need more media consolidation in Canada. The internet has brought a wonderful proliferation of information and voices to news readers. This is a very trying time for the news business, but it’s a golden age for the news reader. You can read more things from more places than ever before. News is broken quicker, it is exhaustively checked. There are more eyes at every scene, everyone has a camera. And if all that our media barons can see in that is a threat, then this is going to mean it’s just the same xenophobic argument of ‘Oh poor little us in Canada. We’re going to get overrun by this digital behemoth from the United States.’ …
The idea that we need regulation, and the Competition Bureau must bless this wretched consolidation effort, that’s going to be bad. It’s going to be bad for news consumers, it’s going to be bad for journalists. It might be good for Postmedia’s bottom line in some weird hedge-fund-backed sorcery that I can’t claim to understand, but I don’t think it’s good for Canada.
On CBC losing hockey and network boss Hubert Lacroix
Well I think there is a wonderful opportunity in this crisis. By all accounts they’re wasting it terribly. I think it’s humiliating for the CBC to have Rogers setting up shop in their own building. All criticism doesn’t have to be negative, The Globe and Mail did some wonderful reporting [recently] on how the CBC completely fucked up that deal. And the fact that Hubert Lacroix is still running things there is just baffling to me. The arrogance that led to this coming down the way that this came down, the impact that it's having on everything from news and radio to their scripted television -- he’s running that place into the ground and there is no accountability seemingly.
On what CBC should be doing post-hockey
They still seem to be committed to trying to be everything to everyone while they’re completely cut off at the knees. And you’re feeling it in the programming across the board. Like some of the radio stuff these days feels like college radio. Meanwhile, in that radio service you have this incredibly cost-effective service. For very little investment you’re reaching a huge audience, meanwhile they’re starving it and still putting money into just ridiculous flights of fancy.
This interview was edited and condensed.