In 2014, when I was a very mature student with three teenage kids, I heard the Canadaland podcast for the first time. The idea of a show doing serious media criticism was intriguing. The CBC had tried it, but network TV has cultural, managerial and regulatory constraints that are impossible to overcome. The National Post had Warren Kinsella as its media columnist, but that was more of a bad joke and an exercise in payback of real and imagined Prince o’ Darkness enemies than a real effort. Simon Houpt did excellent work on that beat at The Globe and Mail, but there’s always an inherent conflict. Anyone on a media beat, working in a media organization, has boundaries that often prevent them from telling the whole story.
When he set up his Patreon account, I sent Brown $40 a month, which, when the first credit card bill came in, turned out to be $US40 plus the exchange. So I was paying Brown about as much as I sent to Enbridge every month for the gas to run our family’s hot water heater. I got the Romper Room call-out once and was on the show a couple of times, once to refute a hack job on me by David Akin (who tried to link me to the Mike Duffy scandal). My early support made me a sort of Canadaland Day Oner.
I was also on a 2015 panel at Toronto’s Reference Library with Kathy English, an old friend who was ombud of the Toronto Star, and Lynden McIntyre, former CBC journalist and now a distinguished author of fiction and non-fiction. I remember a couple of things about Brown: intellectually, he was a Junior C player in an NHL program, unprepared and blustery. And he kept my wife waiting while he held court, even though she was on crutches. (She thought he was an asshole from that moment forward, and turned out to be right).
To make a short story long, as I tend to do, I eventually cancelled my monthly Patreon donation. The program had become stale. The other shows that Canadaland tried to launch seemed like bad college radio. I had seen online complaints by former Canadaland women employees about poor treatment and low wages. Women of colour were especially critical. Recently, Canadaland became one of the few digital media start-ups to unionize. Staff at Canadaland organized a local and fought for a collective agreement partly because the employees are politically-aware, left-of-centre young people, but also because it seems like Canadaland was, at least for a time, a bad place to work.
Brown also made some serious journalistic blunders. Some were rookie errors that he could have easily apologized for, but didn’t. And he seemed to be in the tear-down business, engaging in the kind of “gotcha!” minor stories that pass as investigative journalism. Many of these turned out to be little more than hype. The Globe’s Simon Houpt called him out on some of these back in 2015, but media coverage of itself has pretty much dried up, and who wants to poke the bear? Brown seems incapable of coming up with solutions to problems. So much of his work is personal, and he has a weak grasp of policy, public administration and management.
Brown did hire Karyn Pugliese, a respected editor, to be Canadaland’s editor-in-chief, but, so far, that hasn’t made the product much better. He’s also brought in Jeopardy champ Mattea Roach to host the Backbench podcast on federal affairs. Though Roach has a great mind for trivia, she’s shown she has a rather unformed intellect and knows nothing of substance about federal politics. The show seems like a gimmick. As well, the follow-up to Canadaland’s Thunder Bay podcast series had its wheels come off when a respected Indigenous woman journalist quit over a harassment complaint against someone else involved in the production. The show went ahead anyway and debuted to a collective yawn. Unknown to Canadaland’s listeners, the first show was out of date by the time it ran, with the city’s police chief and mayor, who were heavily criticized in the podcast and described as though they were still in office, already being fired (the chief) or out of office (the mayor). Anyone wanting to know the story at the core of the first Canadaland series should have read Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, which, despite its flaws, shone the light on the appalling conditions of many Indigenous people in that city.
Canadaland reached the height of its excesses in 2019 and 2020, when Brown tried to build his brand on the back of WE Charity. His flawed stories, discussed at length in earlier posts on FairPress, made him the darling of the extreme left (Boo capitalism! Boo social enterprise!) and the extreme right (Fuck Trudeau!) Brown’s enthusiastic testimony to a Parliamentary committee about his own journalism shocked real journalists, and the wheels started to come off, As Canadaland has swung more and more to the right, with guests like conspiracy theorist and debunked fringe journalists eating up more and more podcast time, a steady erosion of Canadaland support has been underway:
The charts show a steady decline. These has been a sizable drop lately due to Brown’s stand on the Israel-Hamas war. Brown has staked out a position on that conflict that does not sit well with many of his hard-left listeners. The decline has been offset with more support from the Jewish community.
So what will happen to Canadaland? Brown is fighting a lawsuit by Theresa Kielburger, the elderly mother of the WE founders. She convincingly argues in her pleadings that Brown repeated an ugly libel of her that was already certified by a Canadian court to be false and damaging. But Brown has deep pockets due to a shrewd investment in an emoji company. He like the power, the profile and the platform that Canadaland gives him, even though sophisticated Canadians know most of it is bumpf. So I suspect we’ll have Jesse Brown to kick around for a while.