Who in the world is Jesse Brown?

In the 1989 movie, Blaze, starring Paul Newman as Earl Long, the “finest governor of the great state of Louisiana” and introducing the incredible Lolita Davidovitch as the burlesque-dancing love of his life, Blaze Starr (not her real name), there’s a scene in which Blaze’s mother imparted a few words of wisdom to her daughter just as Blaze prepared to leave home.

“Never trust a man who says trust me,” she said, holding a baby in her arms.

Later, mindful of her mother’s advice as she stood onstage in fur coat and smoked a cigarette in a long holder, Blaze asked a wooing Governor Long, “can I trust ya?’

“Hello no!” replied Paul Newman as Long.

“What a wonderful thing to say,” Blaze murmured as she fluttered her eyes knowing the governor, at the very least, was not trying to pull the wool over them.

Life lessons come in all shapes and sizes. And now that we are dealing with the matter of who in the world is Jesse Brown, I’m hearing the words of Blaze Starr’s mama in my head.

Jesse Brown wants us to trust him in his self-appointed role as overseer of a “cozy” Canadian media.

Brown made his name on the Ghomeshi scandal. That’s the first time I’d ever heard of him, anyway. Not having had the pleasure of listening to his CBC show, The Contrarians, or knowingly read any of his print work in Toronto Life, the National Post and others, I was, as they say, “in the dark,” about Jesse Brown.

Yet, despite what I saw as  an off-putting smacking of the lips when he talked about young women, sex and Jian Ghomeshi, I asked myself if he could really be an emerging muckraking hero, a sunny avenger of abused women and those who seek to cover up abuse of all sorts?

Heaven knows, we could sure use a sharp pencil here in Canada, one with a smart critique of media and social issues, a critique based on careful research, a broadminded outlook and unassailable accusations. Of course, a sense of humour and some humility would be a bonus, but that’s a tall order.

Is Jesse Brown that person?

Media specialist Simon Houpt wrote what I thought was an enlightening column in the Globe’s online edition on Saturday, one that dug a little bit deeper into how Brown works. Journalist Jesse Brown is quick to expose the failures of Canadian media. But what about his own? 

Houpt wrote about Brown positioning himself as “a lone wolf, a fearless David taking on the Goliath of Canadian corporate media” and detailed Brown’s accusations of incestuous booking practices in Canada’s major media, his track record of “playing fast and lose with the facts” and his reluctance to correct his errors.

A visit to Brown’s website, CanadalandShow feels like being dropped into a photo shoot of The 70s Show or maybe into a surrealistic Swedish portal, an impression largely resulting from a generous use of the colour yellow.

Most recent stories are listed down the middle of the page—today’s offerings included The Time I “Faked” a CBC Scene (Brown’s response to Houpt’s piece), The CBC’s Kathy Tomlinson Speaks on the Record About Amanda Lang, Is the CBC Lying to Us or is Amanda Lang Lying to the CBC?

He’s recently done podcast interviews with Susan Delacourt (sponsored by Freshbooks), Andrew Coyne (sponsored by The Whiskey Cabinet, by Mark Bylok) and Linden McIntyre (sponsored by Audible.com). The site’s advertising is similar to the way advertising is worked into the announcer’s copy for baseball radio broadcasts. He will soon have his advertising policy published on the site, he says, after he gets feedback from his readers about how that advertising should look.  Apparently, he’s crowded-sourced to the tune of $9,000 a month.

And while it was the Ghomeshi story that catapulted Brown from the blogosphere to the stratosphere and is partly what’s keeping him there, the site’s other big story, written by Sean Craig, is that Amanda Lang took speaking fees from companies that were covered by her show and influenced content because of it.

The issue of journalists taking speaking fees has been a bit of a hobbyhorse for Brown since he first reported that Peter Mansbridge, anchor of CBC’s The National, was paid to speak at the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association in Calgary in February 2014. Because of Mansbridge’s profile, the story was covered widely and, in hindsight, was a piece that involved minimal research for maximum coverage. Click here to review it.

Brown was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying, “I think that just sort of saying ‘I’m a journalist, trust me, I’m not going to do anything that will influence my journalism’ as Peter Mansbridge has said, that’s not how conflict of interest works.”

The speaking circuit is a ready source of income for people who have enough of a profile to draw an audience. Speakers’ bureaus such as Speakers Spotlight or the National Speakers Bureau can hook you up with an array of bright lights. In addition to Amanda Lang, you could hire journalists like Wendy Mesley (CBC), Steve Pakin (TVO), Chantal Hébert (Toronto Star) and Paul Wells (Maclean’s). Click here and here to peruse who you might like to hire for your next luncheon. There’s a ton of selection.

But it’s not just journalists that can be hired to speak. By paying at least one month’s of an average Canadian’s salary, probably closer to two, you can hire social activist and author Naomi Klein, her husband Avi Lewis, her father-in-law, Stephen Lewis or mother-in-law, Michele Landsburg. Or if you’re interested in children, you could hire child rights activist, Craig Kielburger or his equally active brother Marc Kielburger. For between $10,000 – $20,000 Dr. Samantha Nutt, Executive Director of Warchild Canada, the organization that helps “children in areas experiencing conflict and the aftermath of conflict” will talk to you.

All these people are willing to speak to you for money and have hired representation to make sure you know that.

To be clear, I have no issue with how people make their living. I am a Working Girl myself and I understand how expensive it is to raise and educate children and keep a roof over your head, especially when you have no expectation of inherited wealth or a pension. I get that. We all have to do what we have to do. Although, truth be told, I get stressed out when people who call themselves “social” or “anti-poverty” activists charge $10,000 or more for a speaking engagement.  There’s something so off-kilter about that.

But, of course, you can also hire Jesse Brown, if you’d like to. He is represented by the same speakers’ bureau as Amanda Lang. Isn’t that a funny coincidence?

According to Speakers Spotlight, “technology and media expert,” Jesse Brown, will explain “the challenging shifts ahead, and how to stay on top of them.” Click here to read more about what Jesse Brown can offer you.

But did Jesse Brown happen to mention that he was also a member of the paid speaking circuit when he was “breaking” the Mansbridge story? Or that he was represented by the same firm as Amanda Lang when that story broke, the firm of Speakers Spotlight.

In the Huffington Post story where Brown spoke so vigorously about how Peter Mansbridge was not able to identify conflict of interest, he said how he  might handle his own conflict.  “The way I’ve handled this to date is if I feel that there is any possible relationship between who has paid me for some work and who I’m covering, I just disclose.” (italics mine)

Okay, Jesse, start disclosing.

Because until you get a grip on your own moral centre, you’ll be in a bad spot to question other people on theirs. Because if you and the way you work are not credible, what you say isn’t credible. Because your lack of self awareness does an enormous disservice to the cause of believable critique in this country. Because what you do is increasingly disappointing.

 

Author Photo 01 Sandy Tam PhotographyGail Picco is a strategist who has worked in the nonprofit sector for 25 years. She is the author of What the Enemy Thinks, a recent novel set in the nonprofit sector, and is Chair of the Board of the Regent Park Film Festival. She also writes about baseball and F1 racing.

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Comments

  1. Mary Szabo says:

    Your attack on all individuals who speak for fees is unfounded and irresponsible. For instance, Carl and Mark Kielburger founded Kiel Projects Inc. (KPI), a holding company that manages the money from the brothers’ work on the side – mainly speaking engagements and book royalties. “We have long since made an explicit decision to plow our personal earnings from appearances, book fees and the like into a corporate structure that will serve the public good,” Marc says. “We could have used the funds for a direct personal benefit. Instead, we chose to establish an early social enterprise.”
    Samantha Nutt won the Order in Canada and numerous awards for her charitable work with children. The gift of service is not property and is immeasurable.

  2. Okay. Just to be clear. I have absolutely no problem with speaking for fees–none whatsoever. None. None. None. The problem that led to the writing of this blog was that Jesse Brown who is up to his neck in a story about Amanda Lang’s speaking fees didn’t disclose that he’s represented by the same speakers bureau. For someone who positions himself as a Batman journalist, that is so, well … stupid is the only word for it. Secondarily, when I was researching the types of clients listed in speakers bureaus, I noticed who else was there (aside from Jesse Brown) and wanted to make a point about the contradiction of social activists charging what I think are pretty high fees, but like I said in the blog, I have no problem with people getting paid whatever they can charge. I also think people in the public eye (which is why they get paid those fees) understand questions will be asked and can take it as an opportunity for them to talk about their approach to their work. After all, they, themselves, are the ones advertising their wares. I admire Samantha Nutt. And the Kielburger’s have done some excellent work involving young people. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to treat them like grown-ups. The charitable sector is an $11 billion business in Canada and employs 7% of the entire Canadian workforce (retail is 11% by way of comparison). Requiring accountability and explanation from its leaders is a good thing.

  3. I don’t know enough about Jesse Brown to comment, but throwing Kielburger and Samantha Nutt into the hat appears that you are not objective and have one exercise routine jumping to conclusions. Whether we agree with the speaker fees or not, the organizations are willing to pay them, and this is a free and democratic society. What they do with the money is their business.

  4. All of his coverage with regard to speaking fees is when you report on an organization and don’t disclose that you have or currently do, or are about to take money from them. He does disclose when someone and paid him and he is now talking about them.

    He wasn’t saying you need to list everyone you have ever spoken with (although that’s a good thing). But Mansbridge and Lang report on people they take money from. Maybe they did nothing wrong. The point is that this shouldn’t be hidden.

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