I was in Toronto in early May for the 2019 Toronto Watchdog Workshop on investigative journalism. The weekend event included several excellent panel discussions including Julian Sheer on Mastering the Investigate Interview, and Writing the Investigative Narrative with Susanne Craig from The New York Times.
“A bombshell investigation into one of the world’s most successful child charities last fall alleged several corporate partnerships undermined the charity’s foundational mission of ending child labour. The response from the charity was unprecedented: WE issued a libel notice alleging the report featured “manufactured evidence” and “malice.” It hired a retired judge to review Canadaland’s investigation and issue a public report dismissing the allegations. This session examines the case and the larger lessons it holds for high-stakes, legally-sensitive investigations.”
Regular readers of this website and followers of my Twitter feed will know I’ve been analyzing Canadaland’s coverage of WE Charity for several weeks, and I’ve promised to follow the matter closely, so I had to be there. I also saw it as an important media law session, not just for the commentary from the panel’s experienced media lawyer, but because I wanted to see how journalists see media law. I’m especially interested in what I see as many reporters’ flawed views on the relatively new “responsible communication” libel defence.
The panel was hosted by the Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb, and featured the lead reporter from Canadaland on the WE Charity pieces, Jaren Kerr, along with media lawyer Justin Safayeni of Stockwoods LLP.
Cribb did a good job of providing an overview of the affair and some of the key journalistic ethics issues, while Safaveni, for the most part, adeptly analysed the legal matters and tactics involved. Safaveni did get a little into the weeds when he described the release of 100 pages of WE material to Canadaland as a “document dump.” Later, I reminded him that any lawyer who only got 100 documents in disclosure would seem ridiculous if he told colleagues that she had been hit with a “document dump”.
Kerr, who I’ve written about before but had not met previously, proved to be engaging and charismatic. Some of what he said in describing how he got roped into the investigation came to be wasn’t surprising: they story was pre-planned, and it was Kerr’s job to get it. In fact, his future at Canadaland depended on it.
Jaren Kerr shone some light on how it happened
Brown’s a white, multi-millionaire, internet entrepreneur, with a reputation for sometimes shoddy journalism, and a financial interest in driving traffic to the website he owns. Jesse Brown’s answer to this issue of race and class was to use a young, African-Canadian reporter, with no serious investigative reporting experience. Kerr graduated from journalism school less than a year before Brown hired him to write the WE pieces.
Kerr said during the session that he was out of work after his one-year contract with the Toronto Star ended in the summer of 2018, so he approached Brown to see if there were any openings at Canadaland. Brown had interned there.
Sure enough, Brown did have something. Kerr said that Brown “sold” him on the idea.
Kerr explained it all during the panel session, telling the audience:
“He (Brown) had a story in mind. And he had actually, this isn’t a secret, he did try to get some other people, probably more experienced than me to do this story.”
Kerr never said why other journalists turned the assignment down.
Let’s compare Kerr’s statement with what Brown said on Twitter in a thread linked to his posting of the Canadaland/WE Charity investigation on October 15, 2018, which he had as his pinned Tweet for several months.
“thanks for clarifying. I have no personal feelings towards the Kielburgers or WE, have never met them or had any dealings or communication w them outside of covering them. No we did not set out to say negative things abt them, we responded to information that came to us. (cont’d)”
— Jesse Brown (@JesseBrown) January 29, 2019
So, Brown said he wasn’t out to get the Kielburgers and WE Charity. But he was shopping the story to any journalist who, he thought, might write it. Brown kept pitching the piece until a twenty-two- year-old recent graduate with no job and virtually no experience came looking for work.
Clearly Kerr was very nervous about being put in such a position. Who wouldn’t be? It takes experienced reporters to work investigative pieces. Kerr was learning it all on the fly, basically because he had no other options:
“I was told that there’s a great possibility of legal liability, in terms of notices and potentially being sued. So, I was well aware and prepared I should say for these sorts of risks. And yeah, it was a bit nerve wracking.”
Experienced reporters don’t pass on a good story that exposes wrongdoing at a big, famous organization unless the idea was flimsy, or they saw it as somehow weird. If there is really nothing to an allegation – no solid/on-the-record sources, no concrete evidence (sorry, a digitally-created fake cereal box doesn’t count) – an experienced journalist will wisely say “no thanks”. During my newspaper days, editors would often say, “there may be a good story here, but you don’t have it.”
And that’s why Jesse turned to Kerr, who told the session: “I saw this as an opportunity when my contract was ending at the Star, to try to make a splash before… before I had to consider other options. There were no jobs waiting for me…”.
This is exactly what I was worried about when I wrote about the dangers of young reporters working at places like Canadaland.
The pieces are posted under Kerr’s byline.
According to Kerr, Brown kept coaxing him into publishing the piece by reassuring him that everything would be fine:
“Jesse is full of optimism and drive. And he’s probably a big reason why I didn’t crumble a little bit more. I think he was just saying, ‘Let’s move forward with this.’ Maybe it’s stupidity, maybe it’s confidence but, you know, he just kept saying like, ‘We’re good. We’re good.’”
This was not Kerr’s idea, as he makes clear: Jesse Brown is behind the campaign against WE, which has become increasing strange. Look at the number of pieces Canadaland has done on WE Charity, and their salacious titles:
- “CBC pulled and edited a documentary on voluntourism at the last minute after Kielburger’s voluntourism company complained”. (Article). April 7, 2015.
- “It’s Important to Kick These People When They’re down” (Podcast). September 27, 2017.
- “The Canadaland Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement”. (Podcast). October 15, 2018.
- “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made By Children”. (Article). October 15, 2018.
- “How The Kielburgers Handle The Press A history of aggressive responses to criticism”. (Article). November 19, 2018.
- “Is the Media Afraid of the Kielburgers?”. (Podcast). November 19, 2018.
Brown told me in an email that he’s just following up on his first story about WE and the CBC. He said he plans more pieces. Brown also refused to say whether he or Canadaland donates anything to any charity or help any other cause.
I spoke to Kerr at the session and he struck me as a bright young man with potential. I hope someone hires him away from Canadaland.
I am surprised Brown is trying to keep this going. I can’t see an upside in this, when there are so many very good stories out there. Canadaland has actually been doing some strong work lately, and the WE stuff stands out as just odd.
A report by Justice Stephen Goudge, formerly of the Ontario Court of Appeal, cites Canadaland for publishing incorrect and misleading information, and dismisses all eight of their key aspirations as being “without merit.” Safaveni, the lawyer on the panel, said Goudge is not the kind of person who would skew his findings to suit the needs of the people who paid him.
(BTW, I would have been more than happy to have been on this panel, if I had been asked. There aren’t too many lawyers in Canada with my level of media experience, and I find this case interesting because this law is at the centre of my practice.)
I’ve asked Canadaland to comment on their past articles and address the inaccuracies that I pointed out, especially when I’m offering a $10,000 reward to them if could prove their content was correct.
If they are disputing me, why haven’t they proved it to me and collected the money? If they accept the errors, why hasn’t Canadaland corrected their content on their website and admitted it? (A “reasonable facsimile” will not do.)
I asked Brown if there’s been blow-back from his advertisers, some of whom are connected to WE. He said response has been positive, and lashed out at me for promoting my work on Twitter.
I have also reached out to WE Charity to ask if they know of any other Canadaland articles, or have received more questions from the podcasters. I asked them to let me know if they file a Statement of Claim.
My own take is that Brown wants to be sued. It would be a huge fundraising moment.
If there is another Canadaland piece forthcoming it would be the attack on WE Charity, and the 8th piece in total, that Canadaland has published in nine months. That’s on top of pre-2018 Canadaland posts attacking WE, including Canadaland’s rather 2017 bizarre accusation that The Globe and Mail and WE Charity are engaging in “media manipulation” of children.
Brown, who’s supposed to be a media critic, says he writes about this charitable organization – and only this one – because:
“Investigating an organization does not equal “targeting” an organization. We ask questions about many organizations, and if we learn nothing of public interest, we move on without publishing. Canadaland began reporting on WE quite when they blocked the broadcast of a CBC documentary that was in part about them, and they later succeeding in having coverage about them removed and altered. This was clearly a story for Canadaland. As more sources came to us with more information, it became clear that WE has extensive involvement with Canada’s media and a robust media production enterprise as well.”.
I suspect this dates back to his time at Saturday Night Magazine when Brown had had a column in the now-defunct publication. In 1997 Saturday Night run a piece about Craig Kielburger and his work with a disproved claim that “all the money went to the Kielburger family”. This led to a libel suit that was ultimately settled in January 2000 in what was, at the time, the second-largest libel settlement in Canadian history.
I’ve heard other journalists say the settlement was one of death blows for the already-struggling magazine, which published its last regular edition just two months later in March 2000. The National Post and others tried to revive it for a few years as an insert, but it never bounced back in any meaningful way and was sold to St. Joseph’s (which just bought Maclean’s) and folded for good in 2005.
Brown worked for Saturday Night in its dying days.*
Brown fundraised off the WE Charity stories since the first one ran in October 2018. He has made dozens of pleas for money to go after WE Charity, including a rambling 13 minute solicitation on the October 15, 2018 Shortcuts podcast that must rank among Canadaland’s more tiresome efforts.
No journalists have criticized Brown’s WE vendetta, but, much more importantly, no other major media has jumped on the Brown allegations. The support I get from Canadian media personalities – almost all privately – shows no one wants to pick a fight with someone willing to crush them on what’s become a popular podcast .
This also protects Jesse Brown from criticism of his own record of ill-treating employees, especially women and non-white journalists.
WE Charity has clearly suffered irreparable harm from Canadaland’s vendetta. Amanda Lang’s career was never the same after the Shame Wizard tried to take her down with false accusations (see the Annex of this piece for more on that).
Has Brown ever written a positive piece about a successful Canadian (other than himself)? I have yet to see it if he has.
If someone or something in Canada gets too successful or too big, Brown looks for a way to attack, facts be damned. Earlier this month, Brown slagged Newfoundland comedian Mark Critch, by referring to him as an “alleged” comedian. It’s Canada’s tall poppy syndrome in action. And Brown attracts a following of second-rate minds who get off on his take-downs of successful people. I’ve come across a few of them on Twitter.
He also came after me shortly after I posted my first pieces about Canadaland. Despite all the questions I raised, all Brown wanted to do was try and change the channel by asking if I was being paid by WE to conduct my analysis (which again, for the record, I am not). Whether Brown believes it or not, some people remain deeply passionate about the integrity of the craft. I also find his WE campaign morally repugnant.
I hope this is my last post on Brown and WE. If there is any development, I will cover it. Either way, I will post a follow-up piece once I hear from the parties.
Meanwhile, I’m working on a piece on the effectiveness of libel suits. My question to people involved in recent cases is, “even if you win, do you lose?” I should have that post finished in a few days.
Update: June 3rd 2019:
The libel piece is now posted. It’s an analysis of Arthur Kent’s lawsuit against Don Martin and Postmedia.
As reported on fairpress.ca, I have reached out to both Canadaland and WE Charity. I have now received all of the 135 questions posted by Canadaland to WE Charity as well as their responses. Canadaland generally declined to respond to my questions, with Jesse Brown saying he believes I am acting in bad faith.
 Pearson, Jordan. “Why Is Canadian Media Ignoring the $100M Sale of a Toronto Startup?” Vice. March 29, 2016. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ezpv37/why-is-canadian-media-ignoring-the-100m-sale-of-a-toronto-startup-bitstrips-snapchat-bitmoji.
 “Journalist Jesse Brown Is Quick to Expose the Failures of Canadian Media. But What about His Own?” The Globe and Mail. May 12, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/journalist-jesse-brown-is-quick-to-expose-the-failures-of-canadian-media-but-what-about-his-own/article22488107/.
 Brown, Jesse. “Thanks for Clarifying. I Have No Personal Feelings towards the Kielburgers or WE, Have Never Met Them or Had Any Dealings or Communication W Them outside of Covering Them. No We Did Not Set out to Say Negative Things Abt Them, We Responded to Information That Came to Us. (cont’d).” Twitter. January 29, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://twitter.com/JesseBrown/status/1090283364689604609.
 “CBC Documentary Edited by Insurance Company.” CANADALAND. October 12, 2016. https://www.canadalandshow.com/cbc-documentary-edited-insurance-company/.
 “It’s Important to Kick These People When They’re Down” CANADALAND. September 27, 2017 https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/shortcuts-important-kick-people-theyre/.
 “The CANADALAND Investigation Of The Kielburgers’ WE Movement.” CANADALAND. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/the-canadaland-investigation-of-the-kielburgers-we-movement/.
 “Craig Kielburger Founded WE To Fight Child Labour. Now The WE Brand Promotes Products Made By Children.” CANADALAND. October 15, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/craig-kielburger-founded-we-to-fight-child-labour-now-the-we-brand-promotes-products-made-by-children/.
 “How The Kielburgers Handle The Press.” CANADALAND. January 18, 2019.. https://www.canadalandshow.com/how-the-kielburgers-handle-the-press/.
 “Is The Media Afraid Of The Kielburgers?” CANADALAND. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.canadalandshow.com/podcast/is-the-media-afraid-of-the-kielburgers/.
 “Kielburger, Magazine Settle Lawsuit.” The Globe and Mail. March 23, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/kielburger-magazine-settle-lawsuit/article4159526/.
 “Saturday Night Revisited?” The Globe and Mail. March 23, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/saturday-night-revisited/article18420466/.
 “Saturday Night Magazine Folds.” The Globe and Mail. April 22, 2018. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/saturday-night-magazine-folds/article24357497/.
*An earlier version of this piece stated Brown worked for Saturday Night in the Ken Whyte years. In fact, he was with the magazine when it was no longer a journal of any consequence.