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.
54 thoughts on “Q&A: Jesse Brown, the crowdfunded journalist who helped get Jian Ghomeshi fired”
Investigative journalism. Something we haven’t been doing for some time because cheap, easy articles are faster to produce.
Kudos to this. Next up – property developers and their ties to the governments
Wish CBC would make lemonade and hire Jesse Brown as the replacement host of Q.
Maybe Jian could be his first guest?
I think it speaks to the economy that a lot of traditional news organizations have taken money out of their investigative budgets – unfortunately libel lawsuits are very expensive, even if you are right (as Jesse mentioned). So that’s part of why we don’t see more stories coming out – even in the U.S. this is a problem. I think is mostly why we are seeing investigative journalism being taken up by more non-traditional organizations – like Jesse and bloggers, but also independent investigative organizations.
My next comment is not a reflection on Jesse specifically, because he seems very credible and reliable, but our society’s new found reliance on non-mainstream sources for investigative news is a double-edged sword. From my observation, it has also led to a lot of misinformation, inaccurate reporting and this proliferation of lies that just seems ubiquitous these days. This isn’t to say that non-traditional news makers all contribute to this culture, but they have certainly opened the door for it.
Socialism with panties is what feminism is. It is a leftist agenda to ruin families, increase the female taxable base, emasculate men, make women into pay for play whores. I will never subscribe to this as I know women want always an Alpha male contrary to what the sisterhood, White Knight gender traits say or what PC, leftist media says. The fact that a man was fired on mere accusation is a sign of the times. You are also forgetting that those idiot women agreed to meet with him, go to his place on the same night they met him. Who does that? We need to make women responsible for their actions and not relieve them of it simply because of their sex or their deified status in the media.
fem·i·nism noun ˈfe-mə-ˌni-zəm
: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities
Mwhahaha. That is our evil plan. We shall ruin all Canadian families, get better tax benefits for females and make you have to pay for all female companionship. We got together at a Chapters last year and planned this all out. That doesn’t sound crazy at all when typed out like that.
hey Omar (omer mk) (email@example.com) u r dumb
look at this idiot: https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=31447712&goback=%2Egde_61398_member_213794420
WE DRINK MALE TEARS
bwahaha hey Omer (*smirk*) firstname.lastname@example.org google search the email address and you’ll find his linkedin profile!
A bunch of MRA crap. What a joke you are.
LMAO – we should let some of his ‘clients’ know what kind of an ignorant P.O.S. he is.
fired for mere accusation? And, how is it you know this? Do you know why he was fired? Or have you tried and convicted the cbc without hearing their side?
Could it be he was fired for what he has admitted to? That he enjoys hitting women in the head? (this is my understanding of his fb post)
Thanks for sticking your neck out, Jesse. It’s much appreciated.
The media is not a court of law and should never be a court of judgment and prosecution of any person, organization or corporation. If this sort of so-called journalism is allowed to continue, this society might as well throw out the door all suggestions of it being a democracy, through which all are “innocent until proven guilty”.
He used to do a show called Search Engine on the CBC..It moved to TVO https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/search-engine/id315348503?mt=2
FYI, women aren’t strange alien creatures from venus that have broken their programming and decided to take revenge on nice guys for lulz. I always found it ironic that people like you complain about men like me being “White Knights” because it’s patently obvious you’re whining about not being treated as such for simply being a dude who held a door open a couple times.
If you really believe that you really don’t understand how our society works and the media’s function within it. The media has not judged or imprisoned Ghomeshi. They’ve simply reported the truth about who he is. What you’re really upset about is the fact that the media decided that it was best to listen to the accusers instead of judging them as just rilly rilly vengeful.
I agree with you but on the other hand, the 8 women have been silent too long and finally have a voice. They are the victims not him. So far, he has not been charged with anything and if this had not come to light thanks to Jesse Brown, he would have continued attacking unsuspecting women carte blanche. For eight woman to come forward, I would say that’s pretty incriminating evidence. It’s hard to believe they are all lying.
Good work! Yet another case of a broadcasting ego out of control.
But please.. MEDIA is the plural. CBC is one MEDIUM among many different MEDIA.
While the facts are not yet decided, someone needed to speak on CBCs biggest secret…
lots of things to cover, but that would be a great place to start for sure.
This begs the question, why are the “majors” so keen on playing it safe with easy content rather than breaking down doors by initiating something bigger?
The big media is typically so content republishing press agency stuff and working hard on “lifestyle” crap.
Q requires a host with a reasonable amount of charisma (and obviously none of the previous host’s “adventurous” hobbies), but Jesse Brown is NOT that person. The CBC already has many hosts with broader appeal who can effortlessly fill the slot. Kudos to Brown for igniting this whole thing, and for surviving on the sidelines after his gigs died with little pomp at both the CBC and TVO, but it appears he’s found the niche that will serve him best, and it’s not fronting and arts/politics/popculture/current affairs mash-up like Q.
And thankfully, those eight are just the tip of the iceberg . . . ;)
As Brown points out, ONLY the Toronto Star has a consistently proven track record of doing large-scale investigative pieces that expose the filth and corruption we often help fund with our taxes. Gomushy, Ford, ORNGE, the senior home study a while back, foreign trained doctors not really being as qualified as they want us to believe, the list goes back MANY years. It’s just too bad that the other papers are left to quote the Star’s stories so often rather than breaking some of their own. Even more impressive is that this persistent journalism can flourish while parent company Metroland keeps slashing jobs and offshoring their “lesser” departments while making sure that few questionably-useful managers ever get the axe, especially out in their community divisions. :)
And datum Is the singular of data… (And I buy my underwear at K-mart… only K-mart.)
Thank you, Sir, for going against the grain.
Goto patreon.com and sign up to support him. As little as $1/ month.
Have you heard Jesse on the radio? He is awesome.
Sensational shockumentaries sell … whereas facts are tedious. CBC Doc Zones’ Weather Gone Wild is one recent example of a shockumentary that is light on facts:
The Weather Gone Wild journalists even don’t mind conflating different issues to “make-up” a point. They are also guilty of making up and promoting ‘new weather math’ to sell their proclaimed new normal for extreme rainfall events:
What sells? Weather Gone Wild’s “A weather bomb exploded over southern Alberta”, or the truth “there are many factors for increasing insurances losses including aging infrastructure, intensification, inadequate flood plain risk management and development policies, environmental improvements to wastewater system that reduce spills but increase back-up risks into basements, expensive basement finishing and contents, inadequate construction by-pass pumping…..”. See I almost lost you before you got to the end of the facts. The weather bomb sells.
But if the insurance industry pays you to promote something then you put whatever spin you have to on it to get some traction and pander to their interests:
And the facts about extreme rainfall intensity trends (they ain’t upward) don’t matter any more:
More recent Environment Canada review of intensity-duration-frequency curves that define extreme rainfall similarly do not show an increasing trend across the country. The observation of more extreme storms is more a function of increased density of rain gauges.
Different kind of show, eh.
They should give Brown his own show, research staff and so on.
That is addressed in the article. Journalists like Brown need staff, insurance, and a solid organization to back them up. Good on the Star for publishing.
A two thousand word opinion piece takes, say, seven hours to write, plus an edit.
An investigative piece can take literally weeks, many many hours of interviewing, background checking, involves multiple staff, researchers, fact checking, detailed documentation, re-interviewing, multiple edits at different stages, can involve legal, depending on how sensitive it is, probably involves several levels of management including the publisher….
There is quite a difference….
You are confusing reporting with the courts.
Not the same whatsoever.
If there IS a story, then why isn’t ANY ‘victim’ pressing charges?
I’d say the three who’ve come forward and put forth complaints, which are being investigated, would make your point moot.
No, he really isn’t. He rambles and gets carried away with his own blarney and doesn’t get to the point.
Well said. He was just ok on radio, but continually overestimated the importance of stories he was covering, even “breaking”. His TVO podcast/show about web tech and promoting piracy and all that stuff was certainly of the moment, but Brown lacked the charm to peddle it to a larger audience, and he had an affectation almost as annoying as Ghomeshi’s “cadence” B.S., a strange tendency to stutter on prepositions as if mock-searching for some crackerjack phrasing that only made him seem pretentious. Still, he’s a good writer, and based on this Gomessy stuff, a good investigator, and he’s even got a halfways decent “radio voice”, but he just comes off too bland for the medium, even CBC. And one can’t help but imagine him getting a little moist at the thought of methodically taking down (albeit rightfully so, it turns out) the top dog at the org that dumped him.
Thing is, he didn’t really investigate the Ghomeshi story either. It landed in his lap. A victim sent him an email, and then he found a couple more victims, which is not hard to do when you are part of a small community that is already well aware of a predator in its midst.
That said, Jesse did the work. I think he needs to play to his strengths though and not try to be good at all things journalism.
If by “blarney” you mean exposures on hard to argue with conflicts of interest by high profile media personalities at the CBC as well as other revelatory stories regarding dubious media practices in this country then put me down for the “I Love Blarney” T-shirt. Jesse Brown is a refreshing change from the status quo. Your criticisms amount to no more than petty vacuous cavilling in my book.
Anyone who writes “petty vacuous cavilling” is naturally going to love blarney without knowing what it means.
Naturally. Perhaps you understand “nitpicking” then?
Dude, your reading comprehension needs some work. No wonder you think Jesse is a good journalist.
He’s done some good and interesting work over this past year. Not every episode is as riveting as the last but your criticisms of his style seem minor and trivial to me. But then perhaps you have a hypersensitive blarney detector – might want to get that looked at. Oh darn, I probably misread you again. Guess we’ll agree to disagree “dude”.
I don’t agree with you at all. Democracy absolutely requires information, and journalism is a major source of information. We can’t make informed decisions without it. Courts don’t exist to provide information -they have a totally different function. Courts exist to decide whether a person or entity has violated a standard of some sort and if so, if they should be punished, either deprived of their liberty or pay a fine, etc. If we relied on courts for our information, we’d know very little and would be operating blind. As it is, we don’t have enough investigative journalism, and so many actors are getting away with all sorts of terrible things. Not just individuals like Ghomeshi, but major corporations, etc. It’s a huge problem and not one for the courts to solve.
Criminal charges have nothing to do with whether there is a story. They have to do with whether someone has provided the police information of a potential crime for them to investigate. Plenty of important stories out there that have little to do with crime. And plenty of worthy crime stories won’t result in charges whether the police investigate or not.
Cheap, easy articles are faster to produce and they appeal to the laziness of most Canadian journalists… It’s easier to recycle the NY Times into a Canadian context than actually do real journalism… More time to spend petting the golden retriever at home, right?
… To be continued… NOT!
The point is this: Out of a thousand Canadian journalists, he’s the only one who would have said “Hey, maybe this is worth investigating.” as opposed to “Maybe Jian will unfollow me on Twitter if I pursue this.” The Canadian media is so incestuous… we need a weirdo outsider like Jesse Brown to shake things up…
Did a *thousand* Canadian journalists have any access to this story (i.e. Jian’s accusers) at all? Did fifty? No.
As for Jesse being a weirdo outsider, it’s the opposite! He has family connections in journalism, and nothing at all about him is weird, and no straight, white, able-bodied man is on the outside of Canadian media. LOL
Become famous at the expense of ruining someone else’s life! This is such a bullshit story! Hope you’re happy with yourself and you enjoy your short lived fame!
Way late with this reply, but I have indeed heard Jesse on the radio. In fact, I was an avid listener to Search Engine both in its broadcast and podcast incarnations, and my comments stand: he showed no charisma. Professional, yes. Easy to understand, yes. But he constantly did these little vocal ticks — like stuttering at the beginnings of questions to make them sound like they were so important he could barely formulate them fast enough — that made him seem pretentious. Jesse’s just not Q material, as Shad’s promotion to the chair more or less proved earlier this week. And frankly, I’m not even sure about Shad as I suspect he lacks Ghomeshi’s erudition and pop culture savvy, though to be honest even those were FED to Ghomeshi rather than being truly innate.
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