Post Interview: Jesse Brown the man who broke the Jian Ghomeshi story
Media critic Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast and website have produced some of the most talked about stories in the country in 2014, and he’s just getting started
Image: CJ Baek
Toronto journalist Jesse Brown launched his podcast Canadaland in October 2013. But most first heard of him in the lead up to one of the biggest news stories of 2014 — Jian Ghomeshi. He followed this up by hurling some rather unsavoury accusations at another CBC celebrity journalist, Amanda Lang. He’s become somewhat, ahem, popular down at the CBC offices, so much so that some eager beaver spelled out the words “Jesse Brown snitches get stitches” in kitchenette fridge magnets in a CBC office kitchenette. We tracked down the pugnacious podcaster to find out what comes next.
So the “snitches get stitches” thing, my first reaction is that it must have just been a joke. Did you take it seriously?
Personally, I think it was a joke. But there are lots of people on the fourth floor (where the message was found) that work on Amanda Lang’s show that might resent the fact that someone may have leaked information to Canadaland. So maybe they made a joke, but there may have been a current of hostility.
But this is the business you’re in. Has it happened yet that you’ve lost friends or felt somehow cut off from people at the same time your popularity is on the rise?
I’ve had a couple of awkward exchanges with people I consider personal friends, yeah. But for the most part, I’ve had tremendous encouragement from journalists, including CBC employees.
How much did contributions to your site increase after you broke the Ghomeshi story?
If you look at the chart, it shot right up beforehand from nothing.… We had lots of new listeners, and the increase in support was sharper before Ghomeshi rather than during. I was careful because I didn’t want to exploit it for patronage.… I didn’t turn the campaign off but kept it on down low. But Amanda Lang seemed to generate a lot more activity.
You used to work for CBC and left after your contract wasn’t renewed. Three of the major stories broken by Canadaland involve three of the most recognizable faces of the CBC. You’re not just getting back at the old boss are ya?
No, I mean, I have very complicated feelings toward CBC. I have tremendous gratitude. CBC was a place that asked me in the door, taught me about documentaries, green-lit two of my shows.… I feel totally grateful for that experience.… My attitude is that what’s happening now isn’t right, and people should know about it. One theory is that I’m obsessed with the CBC. Another theory is that they have a lot more problems.
Has anybody shaken their fist at you and yelled, “You’ll never work in this town again?”
I was told, at one point, that I was on a blacklist at the CBC, by someone at the CBC.
You started a newspaper while at Northern Secondary School and immediately got yourself in trouble. A lot of your early experience involved pranks. Are you just a troublemaker?
Well, I definitely have a natural aversion to authority. Usually in my life, to my detriment, I have this compulsive need to kind of ask questions, point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies or tell jokes. But journalism is the right place for that kind of behaviour.
You often mention the insular nature of the Toronto media community, but your site seems to be demonstrating that although it is small and interconnected, they certainly don't mind throwing each other under the bus. Do you see this as a positive that there are some people in these massive organizations that want their work to mean something and don't mind calling our their colleagues? Or are people just trying to advance their own careers by getting the competition in trouble with the boss.
I think motivations are different in different cases. Kathy Tomlinson put her career in jeopardy, there is no advancement out of that. It was a really big risk. But what happened compromises her work, her credibility. It was a principled stand that she took.
I wasn't really paying attention to Canadaland until the big breaking stories, but now I've been going back in the archives, and the breaking stories are great, but there are some really enjoyable interviews, a couple years' worth. Do you fell like now that you have this great new audience that missed out on all this great stuff that came before?
That's kind of you to say. I do know that about a third of the traffic is going through the archives. People discover a new podcast and they binge on old ones.
Do regular folk care enough about media criticism, it seems like you really only got widespread attention when the site veered from media criticism to reporting a sex crime.
Ya, I mean even before that it was a niche thing, but it wasn't just journalists. All kinds of people are interested in what makes the media tick. They are sensational stories of greed, sex, corruption. The crucial thing we ask is can we trust the information we get.
It sounds from the couple comments you've made like you and Kevin Donovan (Toronto Star investigative reporter who worked on the Ghomeshi story with Brown) didn't exactly get along like gangbusters, but it also seems like he's the kinda guy you'd want more of in the media outlets across the country simply because he's doing something most other newspapers have forgotten how to do. What's the deal?
I have tremendous respect for Kevin Donovan as a serious investigative reporter with an incredible track record. He's a machine. And he was absolutely the right partner for that story. We have very different approaches but for whatever reason the partnership worked and the story got published.