Dissecting the Shame Wizard Part II: I will give $10,000 to anyone who can prove that Canadaland isn’t simply false news

Yes, it’s a very snappy headline. Lawyers should have flashbacks to law school and the Carbolic Smoke Ball case. Journalists and other people who read this might wonder why I would risk my money.

Because there is no risk.

I’ve been following the back and forth between Canadaland and the WE organization since last fall when Canadaland started to put out articles and podcasts about WE Charity. I was shocked that Jesse Brown would go after a charity that first brought the issue of child labour to my attention and helped change the world’s attitude on unfair trade.

WE Charity, which helps poor people in the developing world and raises awareness in the West about child labour and poverty,  got roasted on social media by Canadaland followers – including other journalists – who quickly retweeted Canadaland’s and Jesse Brown’s posts.

It appeared that no one gave the Canadaland stories a close read. No one fact-checked them or even looked at them with a critical eye.  I did. I saw some of the holes right away. I decided to give them the fact-checking they should have had before they were published. Anyone who wants to fact-check my fact-checking can find the documents on Canadaland. I have also consulted documents posted online by WE, including Justice Goudge’s report. I have also done some easy Google searches, like “Unilever AND child labour”. Everything in this piece is from the public record.

I’ve invested hundreds of hours into fact-checking Canadaland’s WE stories. I reviewed Canadaland’s articles and podcasts, and followed up by reading everything WE gave Canadaland as source material (available online), and the Charity’s two Notices of Libel against Canadaland, and other relevant publicly-available information.

My conclusion: The two podcasts and the print articles published with them are  some of the worst examples of journalism I’ve  seen. Canadaland’s reporting on WE is reckless. The bias is clear: they went out to get a story, and when they couldn’t find one, they ran something that looks like an expose. And they said they’d keep trying to get more.

The charity’s reputation took a beating so that Jesse Brown could increase his clicks and revenue. By my calculations, the WE articles and Thunder Bay podcasts that ran at the same time brought in about $US 3000 a month from Patreon donors. (The amount has started to decline, and it’s hard to know how much interest was generated by the acclaimed Thunder Bay series verses the WE mess.)

Here are the top five items that stood out after my review:

  • WE never put its logo on Kelloggs cereal boxes: I’m so confident that Canadaland is wrong on this claim that I will pay Canadaland, or anyone else, a reward of $10,000 if they give me an actual box of the Kellogg’s cereal with the ME to WE logo used to illustrate their article.

Canadaland spread this image all over social media. It was supposedly the smoking gun proving a secret and sleazy relationship between Kellogg’s, which Canadaland says has child labour products in its supply chain, and ME to WE. One problem: the alleged partnership, just like the cereal box, never existed.

The written record shows WE stating this repeatedly to Canadaland (and saying the image was likely created by a third-party agency making a business pitch). Canadaland kept circulating the digitally-created image. They wouldn’t even take the word of a retired Justice from the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Honourable Stephen Goudge, who reviewed all the allegations by Canadaland and found there was no cereal box and no relationship whatsoever between any WE entity and Kellogg’s. Nevertheless, Canadaland has yet to correct the record.

Canadaland claims the Good Housekeeping Humanitarian Seal that Good Housekeeping gave to WE was “just advertising”, and that WE somehow unduly influenced the magazine to give the charity this endorsement. Good Housekeeping, which has been issuing its seals since 1910 – they’re probably the company’s greatest asset – stated online how its new Humanitarian Seal was issued to WE “after a rigorous 10-step evaluation process carried out over several months-which included in-depth analysis of WE’s financial filings, tax audits, operational structure, programs and global expenses.” It went on to say “WE met and even surpassed our intense criteria.”

So, basically, Canadaland has accused Good Housekeeping of being liars, despite the evidence that Canadaland’s reporting is wrong. Who do you trust? I’m going with Good Housekeeping on this one.

  • What’s a foundation? Get me a dictionary! In his October 15, 2018, podcast, Jesse Brown claims over and over that the U.S.-based “ME to WE Foundation” is not a charity, but a for-profit business. The WE documents posted by Canadaland show WE clearly explained how the WE Foundation is incorporated in the U.S. as a foundation, how it files financial records as a foundation, and operates as a foundation for a charitable purpose. The IRS clearly agreed because, as the record shows, it has held that foundation status since 2010.

Canadaland ignores this legal information. Jesse Brown claims the ME to WE Foundation is a fraud, saying on his podcast:

“And I know that in the States ME to WE is called the ME to WE Foundation, which sounds like a charity but it’s not, that’s a business.” – Jesse Brown, 36:51 of the Oct. 15, 2018 Canadaland podcast.

The error remains in the podcast, and it’s still posted online with this incorrect information. (There is a small “clarification” to its website, but Canadaland did not correct the podcast itself, which is still readily available for download via Apple’s Podcast app, and on Canadaland’s website.)

Brown, a multi-millionaire, doesn’t realize that foundations are supposed to raise and distribute money. The ME to WE Foundation raises money for WE Charity, which builds schools and hospitals in the developing world. I’m having a very hard time understanding what Brown finds so bad about that.

  • The “WE media conspiracy”. In their piece “Is the Media Afraid of the Kielburgers?”, Canadaland infers that, somehow, WE managed to influence The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Postmedia, the CBC, and every other major media outlet in Canada into providing only positive coverage of the WE organization and its activities.

Here’s my favourite line from the media conspiracy element of the article: “Over the years, I’ve spoken to four or five reporters who’ve been chasing [a story about WE]… but nobody seems to have gotten very far with it.”

I wonder why?

Option 1: upon undertaking some actual journalism, there was nothing notable to report.

Or

Option 2: this children’s charity is engaged in a vast conspiracy among Canada’s leading media outlets, and only Canadaland is immune to their influence.

Canadaland attacked the credibility of The Globe and Mail by claiming the special section content the Globe runs about WE Charity is “created by WE employees”. The G&M’s own website and stated policies show this is not correct. Yet again, the Canadaland podcast is still online, in-full, without any edits to the podcast to properly correct the mistake.

Canadaland claims the Kielburger brothers use threats of litigation to silence their critics, pointing to a lawsuit filed more than 20 years ago against now-defunct Saturday Night magazine for an article that took cheap shots against then 13-year-old Craig Kielburger.  Brown was not able to show any other evidence of “litigiousness”. According to information on the WE Charity website, neither WE Charity nor the Kielburger family has filed a Notice of Libel in over twenty years —  except in this case with Canadland after repeated unsuccessful attempts to correct Canadaland.

(I suspect if WE actually had a lock on Canada’s media, some of them might have taken a little time to debunk Brown’s reporting.)

Concealing Errors & Failing to Fulfill “Journalistic Principles”

On April 4, 2018, Canadaland released its 2018 notice of corrections, with the title “All of Our 2018 Corrections And Clarifications”. Apparently, someone needs to teach them the definition of “all”.

Despite overwhelming evidence, Canadaland has yet to admit the vast majority of their errors in the WE Charity reporting, but even when they did issue a few measly corrections regarding WE Charity, they failed to include the material in their transparency list of corrections. It’s telling that Canadaland’s notice of correction actually requires multiple corrections.

Canadaland’s notice of corrections cites only one error that appeared in both an article and podcast about WE Charity: Canadaland acknowledges that they were not accurate when Brown and Kerr said the Globe and Mail special content section about WE Charity is “created by WE employees”.

The 2018 report, which is supposed to be the complete list of corrections and clarifications, doesn’t  include their other “clarifications” regarding WE Charity. For example, the show notes for their November 9th podcast about WE Charity states the following corrections and clarifications:

“1. In the written article that this podcast is based on, CANADALAND reported that in 2016-17, WE Charity had forecasted $47 million in revenue from all partnerships. However, in summarizing this detail on the podcast, the figure was misstated as referring to the charity’s corporate partners alone.

2. On the podcast, host Jesse Brown says the U.S.-based ME to WE Foundation “sounds like a charity, but it’s not; that’s a business.” CANADALAND wishes to clarify that the ME to WE Foundation is incorporated as a “foundation” in the U.S., and WE advises that the ME to WE Foundation’s status is the “legal equivalent of charitable registration in Canada.” WE also says the ME to WE Foundation sells products and services to support the WE Charity in the U.S.”

First, the standard for dealing with corrections in online articles is that the errors inside the articles are fixed, and a note is made at the bottom of the page explaining the change that was made to the article. Canadaland failed to correct the main body text regarding WE Charity. Secondly, for podcasts, Canadaland seems to have a double-standard for WE Charity, as they corrected the iTunes notes with errors within other podcasts (ex: Sheer and Loathing), but don’t do that for any of the WE Charity content. Lastly, as I noted above, Canadaland does not include multiple acknowledged errors about WE Charity in their annual list of corrections.

If their notice of corrections truly included all errors within their articles and podcasts, I suspect that an accurate list of corrections by this website would be stunning.

On the same day (April 4th), Canadaland also released its Transparency Report. The document shows a shocking lack of self-awareness as they wrap themselves in a flag of “Journalistic Principles”. The document boasts in multiple sections about their coverage about WE Charity, and includes the below statement:

“Journalistic Principles

“As a news organization that is largely focused on reporting on and criticizing other journalists, our own journalistic standards and practices are under constant scrutiny. We strive to exceed the standards that we apply to others. As such, our journalistic practice prioritizes the following values:

  • Accuracy
  • Fairness
  • Accountability
  • The public’s right to know

“We emphasize these four values deliberately and place them above other common journalistic goals such as speed, exclusivity, or objectivity. The application of our value,like journalism itself, is a daily, lived, and imperfect operation. Each story presents unique challenges, and like all news organizations, we will make mistakes. How we address them, account for them, and learn from them, will define us.”

 The document also states:

“Practically speaking, the idea is to tell our supporters how we spent their money last year. It lets people make an informed decision about whether or not we are doing good things with their cash, and consequently, whether or not they want to keep supporting us.”

 I hope that Canadaland supporters accept Jesse Brown’s self-righteous challenge and consider whether they want to enable this website to continue to inflict such harm on whomever Brown wants to target.

Canadaland is Righteous and WE Charity is Evil. Canadaland has done its best to convince its audience its staff  are crusading journalistic truth-tellers and that WE Charity is an evil, media-manipulating entity that warps the minds of school children and secretly promotes child labour, the very thing it was founded to stop. The real sting was the claim WE promotes products made from child labour. It doesn’t.

 In Canadaland’s alternate universe, WE Charity strays far from its mission to end child labour by partnering with three companies that have child labour in their supply chains: Unilever, Kelloggs, and Hershey’s.

Canadaland’s claims about the Kellogg’s partnership, proven by its bogus cereal box, are false. Even Brown and Kerr admit, in passing, that these boxes were never on the market and base their claim on an anonymous expert who “feels” the box is real.

Jesse, let’s see the box.

WE Charity says it worked with Unilever and Hershey’s to help them improve their supply chains. Unilever is one of the most socially-conscious companies in the world, awarded by Oxford the #1 position on its Behind the Brand Scorecard for sourcing policies. It even posts an annual report about what it’s doing to solve the problem. (Ah, the magic of Google! It took two minutes to find those links.)

Hershey’s has previous issues, but has committed $500 million to social welfare programs and is on-track to third-party sourcing for all chocolate by 2020. Hershey’s and Unilever are gigantic conglomerates with complex supply chains. They might not be working so hard to get products made with child labour out of these chains if not for the activism of organizations like WE.

WE Charity has spent the past 24 years helping to end child labour by building 1500 schools and schoolhouses, establishing 30,000 alternative income programs, and helping lift over one million people out of poverty.

Canadaland ignores these facts, and wraps everything up with sensationalist headlines and click-bait. The truth is, there is no story here, and there’s a reason why no mainstream media picked up on this “expose”.

Canadaland attacked the credibility of a well-established Canadian charity. For a charity, a good reputation is everything. They can’t raise money if they lose it. When WE Charity tried to defend itself by publishing a review of the matter by a retired judge and issuing two libel notices asking for corrections, Canadaland fired up the twittersphere to present themselves as the victim. They call the charity litigious and shame them for attacking spunky little Canadaland.

Canadaland wrapped themselves in the flag of “independent media”. I believe in supporting independent media, but I don’t do it blindly.

I’ve never seen a media entity that so blatantly asks its users for money the way Canadaland does. Obviously all outlets need to earn revenue through advertising and sales of their product, but Canadaland directly fundraises off its WE Charity reporting, encouraging its audience to give more money to continue and expand its WE Charity investigation.

In the first  WE podcast on October 15, Jesse Brown teases the story for a few minutes, and then goes into a 13 minute (from 8:45 to 21:50 of the podcast) pitch for donations and subscriptions. Brown ties his ability to keep his reporter on the WE beat to the amount raised. On an October 18 Podcast, Brown says “…if we reach our next goal of this crowd-funder, Jaren Kerr will be offered a permanent full-time job with us.”

Frankly, that’s just tacky.

If you don't buy this magazine, we'll kill the dog - National Lampoon Amercian humor magazine
“I’ve never seen a media entity that so blatantly asks its users for money the way Canadaland does.”

Canadaland raised a few thousand dollars a month from its donors. A lot of women and children in the developing world paid a high price for that uptick in Canadaland Patreon supporters.

WE Charity is a juicy target for Canadaland, with its celebrity ambassadors, and social media presence. I’m certain that simply adding the hashtag “WE Charity” caused Canadaland material to trend. It may have been an effective way for them to expand their audience, and try to increase their revenue. It’s simple: Canadaland profits from attacking the charity.

My “Top 5” were just some of the egregious examples of Canadaland’s over-hyped failed “investigation”. There are many more. I encourage readers to review WE’s overall response to Canadaland’s reports, the independent report from form Ontario Justice Stephen T. Goudge, and the two (December 21, 2018, and November 6, 2018) Notices of Libel, to get a sense of just how reckless Canadaland has been in its quest to drive page clicks and solicit donations.

It’s time Canadaland took some of its Patreon and advertising money to hire some fact checkers. That is, if it’s willing to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Clarifications: I have changed the wording about Kellogg’s cereal boxes to make it clear that WE’s material provided to Canadaland and posted by them is adamant that they did not approve, or put, their logo on Kellogg’s boxes. I also said Good Housekeeping told WE about their seals. I’ve checked this again, and the material about the Good Housing seals is from their web site, not from denials reported by Canadaland. I have also added an explanation of my sources and fixed some typos pointed out by readers.

Update, May 9: No one has claimed the $10,000.

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