[Jesse] Brown got his start in traditional media, working for CBC Radio (where he was disciplined for fabricating content) and contributing to magazines like Maclean’s and Toronto Life.
He has made a career out of taking on sacred cows and is perhaps most famous for partnering with Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan to break the story of the sexual assault allegations against CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi. That collaboration ended, however, when Brown wanted to publish before Donovan felt full due diligence had been done.
Today, Brown is the founder, owner, publisher, editor, feature writer, and podcast host of Canadaland. In January 2015, the Globe and Mail’s media critic, Simon Houpt, profiled Brown in his column, saying he views himself as “a fearless David taking on the Goliath of Canadian corporate media.”
But Houpt also noted that Brown “has a track record of playing fast and loose with facts.” He has been accused of sensationalizing stories, relying too heavily on rumour and innuendo, and making allegations without doing the hard work to substantiate them. But his small media footprint—his website had just over a million visitors in all of 2020, compared to the Globe and Mail’s average of 4.5 million weekly visitors that same year—is disproportionally influential because of his sensationalist commentary on the media industry. Journalists follow him for the schadenfreude of watching other media outlets get taken down, and out of dread that they themselves will be his next victims.
WE and Brown first collided in March 2015, when he published an article alleging that the CBC had pulled a documentary about voluntourism at the last minute because it was critical of ME to WE. In fact, the documentary was simply rescheduled because it included WE Day footage for which rights had not been cleared and it had to be re-edited. There was no critical coverage of ME to WE in the film, and the company was not one of the tour operators profiled. Two weeks and three articles later, that seemed to be the end of it.
But in October 2018, it became apparent that Brown had not forgotten about WE after all. That month, Canadaland published an article charging that the charity was “connected to no fewer than three companies known to use child and slave labour in their supply chain,” and that the organization “promot[ed] products made in part by children, including Hershey’s products that contain cocoa farmed by child labourers in West African countries, and Kellogg’s products that contain palm oil farmed by child labourers in Indonesia.” The article and its accompanying podcast also just happened to kick off Canadaland’s crowdfunding season. Brown spent more than thirteen minutes of the podcast soliciting support for his website, then followed up with the same plea on every subsequent episode for a month.
The article was written by a rookie journalist named Jaren Kerr. On the podcast, Brown explained that he had “assigned reporter after reporter” to do a story on WE before finally, in the summer of 2018, asking Kerr to take it on. “He had a story in mind,” Kerr said on stage at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in May 2019. “He sold me on the story as, you know, ‘You’ll have time, you’ll have resources, you have legal insurance. Give it a shot.’” For Kerr, it was an opportunity to make a name for himself. “I saw this as an opportunity, when my contract was ending at the [Toronto] Star, to try to make a splash before I had to consider other options,” he told the reporters at the conference.
The article relied heavily on information attributed to anonymous former employees, was riddled with errors, and included digitally altered financial documents and a digital image of a non-existent Kellogg’s cereal box that had ME to WE’s logo on the front. This was billed on the podcast as “extensive proof ” that WE Charity was lying when it said it did not condone or support child labour. But the image of the cereal box was simply a mock-up someone had created to pitch ME to WE on a potential partnership that never came to fruition. (Journalist Mark Bourrie amusingly offered $10,000 to anyone who could find an actual box of Frosted Mini-Wheats with the ME to WE logo. The prize has never been claimed.)
Not sure how best to combat the Canadaland story, WE Charity retained the services of one of Canada’s most respected jurists, former Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Stephen Goudge. He was asked to conduct a review of Canadaland’s various allegations, as well as WE Charity’s responses and source documentation. In his findings, he wrote that the Canadaland claims were “without merit.”