Q&A: Jesse Brown, the crowdfunded journalist who helped get Jian Ghomeshi fired
In other countries, media analysis is the norm; in Canada, for some reason, it’s not. Jesse Brown—a veteran journalist who has reported for Maclean’s, the CBC and Toronto Life—tried to fill this gap the old-fashioned way, pitching media criticism to various news organizations. When that didn’t work, he started doing it himself. Last year, he launched Canadaland, a podcast and blog, and began uncovering troubling stories from within Canada’s news organizations. He has called out Peter Mansbridge for taking money from an oil sands lobby group, and he probed the Globe and Mail’s questionable endorsement of Tim Hudak. On Sunday, a story he had been working on for months made headlines worldwide when the Toronto Star, in collaboration with Brown, published part of what he says is an ongoing investigation into Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged history of sexual violence. On Wednesday, a second article related stories from eight different women who all claim to have had violent encounters with the radio host. Shortly after the first Star story was published, we met up with Brown to talk about the tricky process of reporting on the CBC’s golden boy, the timidity of the Canadian press and what it’s like being a crowdfunded journalist.
What were the roots of the Jian Ghomeshi story, and how did you become the first journalist to tackle it?
It started when I was approached by a young woman. I investigated independently for some time—a few months—and I found a number of other people making accusations. I put together the stories as best as I could, and I had extensive conversations—hours and hours—with these women, and I verified aspects of their stories.
What was it like for you when you started to realize that the story was getting so huge that you might not be able to do it by yourself?
I got advice from a number of libel and defamation attorneys. Originally, I was very eager to report the story myself. I have my own journalistic standards as to what would make this story newsworthy, and it met those standards completely. But I’m not a legal expert, so I wanted to know what could be done to make this bulletproof against a libel claim. What I was told, in no uncertain terms, is that there was absolutely nothing I could do. There were many things I could do to make the story stand up in court, but there’s nothing I could do in my journalism to stop me from getting sued. That’s why news organizations have this thing called libel insurance, which I didn’t even know about at that point. One of my attorneys suggested that I partner up with a newspaper. I’ve been very vocal about my opinion that the news media is not doing its job aggressively enough, but one news organization, if I had to pick one, that was very interested in investigation and breaking stories, and had shown some balls in recent years, was the Toronto Star.
Was it frustrating for you that you couldn’t break this story by yourself?
Once it crossed the threshold for me that this was absolutely a valid news story, it was frustrating for me not to be able to publish, yeah. But even though I had no concerns about the legitimacy of this as a news story, I had never reported a story like this. These allegations are very serious, and there’s a responsibility to do this exactly right. And there’s a responsibility for my sources, because if I had published this on Canadaland, it would have been very easy to tar me and smear me as some scurrilous independent blogger. When I took my ego out of it, I realized that the best thing I could do for this story and my sources was to work with an established brand and a trusted reporter like [Toronto Star investigative reporter] Kevin Donovan.
What has it been like working with Kevin Donovan?
That’s a work in progress, and so far, we’ve gotten the story out and we’re continuing to get it out. You’re talking about a relationship that’s unspooling as we speak, so I don’t think I’m going to talk about that right now.
What happens the next time you uncover a huge story? Can you do this as a one-man operation?
I was having an exciting and overwhelming month even before this happened. What I’ve been able to accomplish in partnership with my listeners, being a crowdfunded journalist, I think is really unique in Canada. This is new territory, and I think it’s come with a bunch of obligations that I have to fulfill. So I have this overwhelming production schedule all of a sudden. I’m ecstatic and thrilled, but let me say this: this is an ugly story, and it’s a tragic story that I don’t take any particular pleasure in reporting. The Jian story is not the one that I want to hang my hat on for the rest of my life. This is something that I felt a responsibility to get out, whether it would benefit Canadaland or not. I don’t want Jian to be my Billy Bob.
It seems like a lot of Canadian media outlets sit on stories like this. There was the Rob Ford crack story—it was kept under wraps for months until Gawker came out with their story—and then with this, Jian’s letter led to the story being published. What do you make of that? Is that a problem with Canadian media?
Yeah, I think that’s a problem.
Can you share any of your opinions on Jian’s letter?
So, what needs to change in Canadian journalism?
I think that there’s a sense in the press that they don’t want to start something. They want to respond to something. I think that’s a misunderstanding of what the world of the press should be. I think the Toronto Star is the exception to the rule I’m about to describe, but I think, generally speaking, the Canadian press has strayed from its basic connection to its audience. We should be running toward things that have not broken yet. News should be what people don’t know about yet. Everybody is just sort of chewing on the same bone. To be in a completely responsive mode is not responsible journalism.
Do you think Canadian defamation laws have much to do with that?
You know what? The press culture is really timid and likes to lean on that idea that we have these really restrictive defamation laws. But thanks to the Toronto Star, we have Grant v. Torstar, which introduced a “responsible communication” defence. But nobody fuckin’ uses it. The case history is almost zilch. So if you get sued for libel, it used to be that you had to prove completely that what you said was true. Now you can say, “My defence is that I’m a fuckin’ journalist.” That’s been thrown at me. People ask why I didn’t have the balls to go out with the Jian story on my own and make that defence. But I don’t have the resources, and I don’t feel that putting my sources through that would serve their interests. I think our news brands should be running toward those kinds of precedent-setting cases when they have the goods. I’m telling you, just announcing that I want to break stories, I can’t keep up with what people are sending me. People have been waiting for someone to actually express an interest in this kind of journalism.
I understand that you approached various media organizations with the idea of you being their media critic, and none of them bit. Did that change your perception of the Canadian news landscape?
It affirmed some of my more negative suspicions.
Why do you think no news organization wanted somebody in your role?
Canada is a small country and our media is a small business. It’s highly concentrated in Toronto, and it’s even concentrated in specific neighbourhoods. We all know each other, and the atmosphere of challenging each other’s work—which is baked into the American press culture, the British press culture, the Australian press culture—just doesn’t exist here. What I do is uncomfortable. But I think it has to happen.
In your Walrus article, you write that if the media doesn’t question itself, rot sets in. What do you mean by rot, and how much rot do you see?
I don’t think that this is some organized, pernicious den of iniquity where everyone is just enabling each other’s corruption. I think it happens in a much more subtle way than that. Maybe you work at a place like the CBC and you hear whispers, but you know nobody is going to look into it; maybe you work at the Globe and Mail and you know what happened with their editorial board and the Tim Hudak endorsement, but you know you’ll get fired if you say anything about it. It pollutes the morale in a workplace, and it’s completely antithetical to what journalism is about.
As a crowdfunded journalist, how do you avoid pandering to your audience when they are literally paying your bills?
I wouldn’t even know how to pander to my audience. I have over a thousand funders from all over the political map, from every age group, who have wildly divergent interests, and when I say something that pleases some of them it’s going to annoy the others. We’re seeing a lot of people right now who think that the Toronto Star and I are part of some smear job, and they believe every word of what Jian wrote in his Facebook post. I appreciate that people who like his show want to think the best of him, and I think those people are going to have to pay close attention to what they learn in the days ahead. Was I concerned that all of my subscribers would cancel? Hell yeah. But it didn’t stop me from pursuing the story.
Why did you choose podcasting?
Radio is my favourite medium, and radio is turning into podcasting.
How much more can we expect to come from this Jian story? Have we just scratched the surface?
Stay tuned. We’ve only just begun.