Update: A correction has been issued. The J-Source article mentioned in response to Canadaland's move on Brunswick News was not their own. Rather, this post should have specified that it was a republication of one issued by Brunswick News ombudsman Patricia Graham.
Jesse Brown’s posture is neat and relaxed as he sits in an office chair only a third of his size.
Unlike the underdog nature of his show, Brown is huge: easily towering above the six-foot mark, he looks like an attentive goliath when compared to the lifeless, meagre nature of the microphones and devices that surround his workspace.
Suddenly, a shot of energy perks his neck up like a cork out of champagne.
“What the f***,” he says, moving his head away from the screen and swiping his phone to make a call. His partner, Sean Craig, looks up and chuckles.
“It’s a tip,” he whispers, cracking a smirk in the process. “A big one, I think.”
Brown, 37, hosts the small but popular podcast CANADALAND, a rough-around-the-edges media discussion show that’s able to rack up over 60,000 downloads a week on iTunes from listeners clamouring to be a part of the next big takedown of Canadian media.
Prior to going lone wolf with the podcast back in October 2013, Brown had worked at the CBC while producing a show called Search Engine - a weekly, half-hour radio program that discussed the implications of, what are in Brown's words, "techy stuff" and how it related to national issues.
CBC would run the show from 2007 to 2009 before cutting both it and Brown from the payroll due to the huge loss of jobs the corporation faced that year, yet the now-infamous critic would continue the show as a podcast for three more years while writing columns for Maclean's and Toronto Life.
Eventually, Search Engine would draw its final breath in the summer of 2012, prompting Brown to go wholly independent and start planning the future of his career.
Which brings us to CANADALAND.
As someone who has been able to cause a noticable grumble in the media scene over the last year due to his work on high-profile cases like the sexual abuse allegations against Jian Ghomeshi and the recent implications of CBC host Amanda Lang's relationship with an RBC executive, Brown has earned himself a Robin Hood-esque reputation among disgruntled Canadians.
But not everybody’s a fan.
In January, The Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt wrote a column that was heavily critical of the CANADALAND host, describing Brown as somebody whose work has made him “like an action star in a Hollywood blow-’em-up: throwing fireballs and kicking asses.”
And not in an endearing way.
During a phone interview in February, Houpt said that, despite the critic’s contrarian following, Brown’s approach to rousing the crowd is something he sees as being “intellectually dishonest,” noting that some of Brown’s shots at the Canadian media may be libelous in nature.
“That’s the same game that Ezra Levant and Sun News play,” he said, comparing Levant’s controversial rants to Brown’s rebellion against media. “South of the border, everyone from [Rush Limbaugh to Jon Stewart] are engaging in criticism. Some of them are doing it unethically. Their listenership, viewership, audience in some cases, many cases, doesn’t seem to care. I think that’s a shame.”
One of the examples Houpt said stuck out in his mind was a video published on CANADALAND’s YouTube channel in 2013 entitled “The Globe and Mail hates young people”, a video which Houpt says misrepresented headlines and “twisted the sentiments of columnists and others” at the publication.
While irritated with Brown’s approach, Houpt noted that he doesn't believe all media criticism to be of ill intent and that he wishes for more recognition to be shown to other Canadian media critics.
“Jesse’s not the only one who's doing this kind of stuff,” he says. “There are, as you probably know, many, many media critics and many outlets in Canada doing media coverage.”
Houpt also says that while he believes in the integrity of his own publication and the journalists he works with, he shouldn’t be the only one to judge.
“Did we sell out because we were now employed by ‘the man’ or corporate Canada?” he says. “I don’t know, I would like to think not. I like to think we still try speaking truth to power.”
Back in the studio, however, Brown is unswayed by critics like Houpt, pointing out that he views CANADALAND’s mission as something beyond just rebelling without a cause.
“I don’t think we’re here to be media with a chip on its shoulder,” he says. “We’re more whistleblowers than anything.”
And while Brown says that he has begun to take notice of attempts by mainstream outlets to ride the rising trend of media criticism via shows like CBC's Q, it is not something he wants to discourage.
“The message of this has always been that they should be covering this kind of stuff,” he says. “If every newspaper in Canada hired a media critic tomorrow, that would be really good. We’re just trying to do it differently or better than them. I don’t want to get into any pissing matches.”
For an independent startup, Brown has had tremendous success: through a crowdfunding system that relies on the charitability of devoted fans and the support of a few advertisers, Brown affords himself a comfortable living that runs almost entirely on his own terms. One that he can even support a family on.
But such independence comes at the price of an unpredictable schedule, and as the day begins for the CANADALAND duo in the confines of their downtown Toronto studio, an air of uncertainty clouds the room.
“We’re figuring out way too late what the topics are actually going to be today,” he says, referring to the ‘Short Cuts’ mini-episode he records every Wednesday afternoon.
Sitting against a sunlit wall, Craig, a 28-year-old PR worker gone rogue, kicks back with one leg crossed over the other and a computer in his lap as he patrols the half-dozen social media feeds that cloud his screen. His pupils bob in quarter-second intervals across lines of text like a human photoscanner. Every so often, he’ll raise his chin a notch and update Brown with the newest developments of the day.
Brown, on the other hand, is tucked in a corner at his computer station, quietly mouthing over emails he is about to send to potential guests, business people and, most importantly, informants willing to spill secrets for his cause.
Brown is quiet and dead set on the details, slowly organizing the perfect chess game before pulling the curtain for the world to see. If Craig is the fuel waiting to immolate the tapestry of Canadian media, then Brown is the match-holder, carefully planning the trail that will lead to its ignition.
While delicate to the facts, however, what is apparent to anyone who spends even an hour in Brown’s studio is how rag-tag of an operation it truly is. Brown’s ability to keep CANADALAND running despite a hectic and disorganized schedule, primarily due to the largely one-man show he has been directing, is almost a mystery worth reporting on itself.
Although always managing to pull it off, the method to Brown’s madness is far from simple: starting the day with emails and phone calls, Brown isn’t even able to begin work before having to deal with everything from site maintenance to fulfilling the requests of his paying subscribers, all of whom receive varying levels of rewards depending upon their degree of patronage.
These rewards range from 10-minute webchats to monthly group dinners with long-standing members, all of which Brown says are equally draining.
“It’s incredibly tough,” he says. “I don’t mind the actual obligation of doing it or anything. I actually like it — talking to listeners for a few minutes, sending out shirts, personal emails — but keeping track of it all on top of all this is killing me.”
Unfortunately for Brown, the supporters alone aren't enough and the balance he says he is now carefully trying to strike is the expansion of his brand through advertisers why still remaining in a position where he can openly criticize anybody in the wrong.
It's a battle of not becoming like the very organizations he critiques, but Brown says the key is in being upfront about it.
"Transparency is the antidote," he said. "It's not about being virtuous in our approach, it's about asking if our supporters feel comfortable with us doing it, and a lot of them are. At the end of the day, they know where our chips lie."
By the afternoon, Brown’s made a handful of calls and returned dozens of emails, some of which he says pertained to an investigation they broke earlier in the week about corruption allegations made against Brunswick News Inc., a Canadian publishing company based out of Saint John, N.B.
The investigation caused grumbles from Brunswick News (via J-Source) over what some saw as CANADALAND giving insufficient time for Brunswick News owner James C. Irving to respond to the show’s allegations, although Craig said that, while initially agreeing to publish the piece on Monday, they decided to put it up early due to communications between CANADALAND and Brunswick News' Jamie Irving going silent after Irving failed to respond to questions about a timeframe.
The Brunswick News story was just one of many stories constantly flowing into the CANADALAND inbox. With such a small team, Craig says the amount of tips can be overwhelming, but that he sees the David & Goliath appeal of the show as both a blessing and a curse.
“There’s really nowhere else to go,” Craig says, referring to tipsters who stop at CANADALAND before bringing scoops anywhere else. “No one reports on this stuff like we do and we have a giant backlog of tips. We’re only two people. We’re only so capable of putting all of this together.”
Suddenly, the double ping of the door alarm goes off and Brown spins his chair to greet his guest for the day’s episode, Andray Domise, former opponent of Rob Ford in Ward 2 during the November city council election and current CANADALAND contributor. Domise, a busy man, enters the office mid-scarf-pulloff.
He’s also the guest whose temper Brown will test in mere minutes.
After a bit of small talk and gossip, Brown and Domise step into the recording booth, a box hardly the size of your average walk-in closet. The walls are stamped with patches of acoustic foam and wires create a web that crisscrosses the room. In the middle of it all, two tables that look like they were born to hold TV dinners shelter a pair of seats for the host and his guest.
True to the heavy-handed and direct approach that has made CANADALAND such an inflammatory force, the entire setup is highly-personal, pitting the two just shy of breathing distance from each other. Whatever Brown asks his guest in the booth, one thing is clear: there will be no mincing words or eyes trailing to the corner of the room.
While Brown stumbles over a contributor’s name, Domise jokes about the prerecorded nature of the show.
“I feel like I’m going to do a much worse job of mangling people’s names in this episode,” he said. “I might make you look good.”
Domise’s quip was the last distinctly lighthearted moment of the recording, as immediately thereafter, Brown began to play a series of soundbites that led into the topics of the day, all of which focused around issues of racism, religion and sexism.
Midway through the recording, Brown, in a clinically-secular fashion, clashed with Domise on the topic of niqab as a tool of oppression. While Brown noted that he recognized and supported women having the right to wear the niqab, he also argued that the tradition itself is rooted in sexist ideology.
Domise, who disagreed with Brown’s stance, took him to task on it, and in doing so revealed the true essence of the show itself: the reaction.
CANADALAND’s ability to get a rise of audiences while still presenting itself as a formidable and constructive source of investigative journalism is one of the most effective traits in its arsenal, and Brown’s tendency to ask hard questions only speaks to that idea.
But despite his appearance as a devil’s advocate whose only goal is to watch the media industry burn at any cost, the foundations of a moral compass occasionally peek out. Such an occurrence had only happened hours earlier when Brown took a call from a government-related figure.
After Brown raised questions about the tipster as somebody possibly trying to use CANADALAND as a source of dissemination for their own gain, Craig suggested that they use the tip to run a story on that very fact.
Brown, noting that it was an off-the-record conversation and that he didn't want to betray the source's trust, shot the idea down.
“You know, I am so out of my depth here,” he said. “This is not making it past the filter right now. It’s not a story we're going to run.”
While many may recognize Brown as an individual caught in the grey matter of journalistic morality, questions about Brown's role as a journalist and what Houpt says is his immunity to criticism are ones that may never be answered. After all, the tightrope between impatient agent of change and ethical journalist adhering to timeless tradition and the scripture of law is one that has been walked time and time again, yet reveals no indication of being clearly defined.
But what some see as a matter of right and wrong, Brown views as a misguided sense of perspective, arguing that the practices and standards of what have made journalism what it is for so long now are merely products of an industry refusing to change.
"There is an insatiable need to feed the beast," he said. "What invariably happens with media is the thought of, 'I need to have this many stories today, I need have this much content.' The thought of things always working because you always have that source to plug in, you always have that poll you can use. It gets to the point where you can actually start to predict when and how you're going to report on something."
And to Brown, it's a situation that dilutes the importance of the news itself.
"At the end of the day, if you need to keep feeding that quota, you need formulas, and from there, you begin to fall back on them," he said. "What we're doing here is radically different because we don't bother unless it's actually news. We want to report when things actually matter."