The time I “faked” a CBC scene

Simon Houpt of The Globe and Mail just posted this story:

“Journalist Jesse Brown is quick to expose the failures of Canadian media. But what about his own?”

The following is taken directly from his email interview with me. I’m reprinting, unedited, the parts that pertain to the allegation that I once “faked” a scene in a 2006 CBC radio piece.

How would you characterize your experience working on The Contrarians?

Very difficult.

The show was about “unpopular ideas that just might be right”. Each episode, I would champion a controversial argument to see if it had merit. I rarely agreed with these ideas myself, but that wasn’t the point.

One episode was called “multiculturalism doesn’t work, we just eat each other’s sandwiches”. Another was about how feminism had basically achieved all its goals. Another was about how Canada is not a “good guy” on the global stage at all.

I was paired with different CBC producers on this. In cases, advocating for these ideas contradicted their personal convictions. It was a rough go. Management wanted the show to be “edgy” and really “push buttons” while the people I worked with were uncomfortable with the subject matter and suggested topics like “are cottages really so great?” (not kidding).  My show’s executive producer also ran The Sunday Edition. She faced a near mutiny from her colleagues over the feminism episode. She wanted to tank it and pursue an episode championing “misandry” instead. I tried to make that one work, but the idea was so ludicrous it couldn’t sustain a 30 minute defence. The feminism episode ran. Our relationship soured, and I no longer enjoyed her support within the building.

Ultimately, management agreed that the show was “edgy” and “button pushing” as requested, and also quite good. But they also had heard about how difficult the production process was and the show wasn’t picked up on those grounds. I pitched Search Engine a short while later, and they green-lit that…

Thanks. Were you ever told that you were the reason for “how difficult the production process was” – and that in fact, as a result of that process, you had a reputation within the building of being obstreperous and difficult to work with? (And yes, I ask this knowing that they greenlit Search Engine a year later.)

Sorry, tied up the past while.

I’m sure some blamed me for the bumps in the process, but I got along splendidly with Lynda Shorten and everyone else before The Contrarians, and I got along well with my team at Search Engine afterwards. From my perspective, the conflict was a direct result of the editorial material. People weren’t comfortable with it.

I can direct you to Geoff Siskind, who produced Search Engine and who can tell you about what it was like to work closely with me at the CBC.

I liked and respected most of the people I made radio with, and I hope they felt the same way, but I won’t argue that I clashed with the CBC culture.

Yes, I realize you had the AMA, so didn’t expect a reply before now. Thanks for getting back to me.

Speaking of the AMA, I saw you referenced a “smear job.” You don’t think that’s what I’m working on, do you?

No, I don’t think you’d set out to do so, and I’m sure you’d consider with caution any dubious info about me that came your way 🙂

So wait – if not me, then who were you thinking of when you floated the idea of a smear piece? Everyone else has already run adoring profiles. (Indeed, I believe we have, too.)

One reporter profiling me told me they had been shopped defamatory info about me, which I knew to be untrue. They wouldn’t say where they got this from.

I have been told on the record that, while developing The Contrarians at CBC, you faked a scene that you included in the pilot. Would you care to respond?

omg sure.

The pilot was “multiculturalism doesn’t work, we just eat each other’s sandwiches”.

In between interviews with writers and academics, we had comic vignettes where I would go into ethnic eateries and kibbitz with the staff. For example, I went into a falafel shop and tried to engage the woman behind the counter in a debate about who has the best hummus, Jews or arabs?

For one of these, I went into San Francesco Foods on Clinton and asked if the guy could put my veal parm sandwich in a roti or a pita instead of a bun. He gruffly said “No, we don’t have that kinda stuff here!”.

But I didn’t get it on tape. So I asked my buddy to gruffly say the same thing.

Later I told my colleague Jane Farrow, a senior producer on The Contrarians, that I had a friend re-create the bit.

We chatted a bit about it- should we do that kind of thing if the show got picked up and actually broadcast? After all, The Current had little comic vignettes at the top of their show, so there was a precedent for mixing staged comedy with hard news/current affairs. I don’t remember her voicing an opinion on this one way or the other. I used the tape for the un-broadcast pilot, and made a note to bring it up later with Lynda Shorten the executive producer.

Weeks later, once the show had been picked up. I was discussing future episodes with Lynda Shorten, and I mentioned that I had re-created the bit and asked if we should do that for on air episodes or not.

She was shocked. She killed the pilot episode, which we later re-did, and she hauled me into management’s office and put a note on my file.

It was surreal. The distinction between the funny parts of the show and the journalism in the show was very clear. And I was happy to simply not do scripted bits in the future. But this was all dealt with humourlessly and with the utmost severity.

Okay. Thanks for your input.

Sure. I have no problem telling that story publicly so long as it’s told honestly, which I trust you to do.

But I am curious about how it came to your attention and what motivated that.

That story is well known within CBC, going back years.

Motivations? Did you ask the women who came to you with allegations of abuse by Ghomeshi what their motivations were?


And did that negate what they had to say?

No, but had they been motivated by vengeance or a desire to ruin him in service of their own career interests, that would at a minimum have become part of the story.

Thank goodness they were all educated and employed, then.

I’ll tell you about that line someday.

I retract that. My apologies for that last email. I’ve been reading too much Canadaland.

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