The Wrong Man

Summer 2001

 

I thought Pierre Bourque would turn out to be Canada's Matt Drudge. Boy, did I make a mistake

 

by Joshua Heller

~~Bourque Exclusive~~ Trudeau back in hospital. Breaking: Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is back in hospital. This afternoon a source reported that the ailing 80 year old statesman had been admitted to Montreal's General Hospital yesterday.

Before running this item in mid-September on his website, Bourque Newswatch, Pierre Bourque says that he received a tip via e-mail from a Trudeau family friend and confirmed it via e-mail with a top Liberal insider. Patient Services then confirmed Trudeau's status to Bourque over the phone. A short time later, after Ottawa Citizen national editor Anne Trueman read the report on her daily trip to Bourque Newswatch, she called reporter Zev Singer and asked him to look into it.

At the time, Singer happened to be sitting in his car in the parking lot of Montreal General Hospital where wounded Journal de Montréal reporter Michel Auger was being treated. He spoke to a PR person at the hospital, who told him there was no patient registered under the name "Pierre Trudeau," but couldn't rule out the possibility Trudeau was registered under an alias. After spending about 20 minutes fruitlessly surveying the hallways, he concluded that Trudeau wasn't there, although he admits, "It's not impossible that he was tucked away in some corner."

Another source, a well-placed political operative, reported that a number of street-level news hounds are worried that their corporate masters may be preventing them from fully investigating, indeed even repeating, what was reported exclusively by Bourque Newswatch last week.

According to our source, "it is likely that the Prime Minister's Office has exercised every means, including direct approaches to the owners of Canada's national media properties, to ensure that Mr. Trudeau is afforded every privacy."

While no press outlets reported Trudeau's being back in hospital, those who followed up the story denied they were prevented from investigating. CTV senior vice-president of news Kirk LaPointe, who was then editor of The Hamilton Spectator, doubts the mainstream press buckled under pressure from the PMO, though he concedes that "it's plausible." If Bourque is right and a website reported a story that the mainstream press knew to be true but refused to print, it wouldn't be the first time. Two years earlier, Matt Drudge became a household name after breaking the Clinton-Lewinsky story that would have been a Newsweek exclusive had its top brass not withheld the story. Although Trudeau's second hospitalization pales in comparison to Drudge's story, which ultimately resulted in the impeachment of a president, the principle is the same.

Drudge has been an idol of mine ever since I ended up on his e-mail mailing list in 1997. Having been interested in politics for most of my life, and in the Internet since I first logged on in '94, I was intrigued by the idea of a career that combined both. The notion that one man, in a seedy Los Angeles apartment, could expose what became the biggest story of the decade, despite the efforts of a major newsmagazine like Newsweek to conceal it from the public, was mesmerizing. Drudge's track record wasn't perfect, and sudden prominence brought high-profile criticism (Drudge prides himself on being the only reporter ever to be sued by the White House). But Drudge persevered and continued breaking stories about the Lewinsky saga, being first to reveal the existence of the now-infamous dress and Lewinsky's intimacy with Clinton's cigars. More recently, he was first to report that Clinton was negotiating with NBC to host a TV show following his presidency. Drudge landed a TV show of his own on Fox News, though he eventually walked off the set to protest what he regarded as editorial interference, never to return. Following his TV debut, Drudge began hosting a radio show. After being booted off ABC Radio by top network executives, Drudge continues to host a nationally syndicated radio show, now on the Premiere network. But despite dabbling in other mediums, Drudge remains renowned for the stories he breaks on the Internet.

In the fall of 2000, I set out to find a similar citizen-journalist in Canada who would dare to print what others sought to withhold. I began logging on to Bourque Newswatch, hoping to find Canada's Matt Drudge. Instead I found Pierre Bourque, a man who has adopted the Drudge persona but lacks his credibility and investigative zeal.

Pierre Bourque launched Bourque Newswatch in 1998, shortly after Drudge broke the Lewinsky story. The layout of the site, bearing the slogan "Tomorrow's News Now," is similar to that of the Drudge Report. Both provide headlines linking surfers to current stories reported on other websites, permanent links to news organizations, columnists and other Web-based resources, and original reporting. While Bourque says he was "very inspired" by Drudge, he shies away from calling himself "Canada's Matt Drudge." However, a quote he posted on his site by literary agent Lucianne Goldberg refers to him as such. Bourque's site eventually acquired a feature that the Drudge Report lacks: a chatroom.

Bourque has never had a story on the scale of Lewinsky to put him in the category of Drudge, whose site was named one of the "10 Web Sites that will change the world" by global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2000. But the Drudge Report has been online since 1994, and initially, Bourque seemed to be well positioned to equal Drudge's accomplishments.

At first, Bourque's background appeared to offer more opportunities than Drudge's. Growing up in a middle-class Washington suburb and abandoned by his father when he was young, Drudge finished high school and was a nobody who launched his career while working in the gift shop of the CBS building in Los Angeles. (His first scoops consisted mostly of being first to publish box office returns and overnight Nielsen ratings obtained by rummaging through trash bins at CBS and salvaging memos before they hit the shredder.) Bourque, on the other hand, grew up in a more privileged environment in Ottawa. His politically connected father, a wealthy real estate developer, was close with top aides to Brian Mulroney, including Patrick MacAdam, and was a major fund-raiser for Jean Chretien in the '97 election. (Not that Bourque's family is without tarnish: in January 2000, his father pleaded guilty to tax evasion.) As a young man, Bourque gained political experience as an Ottawa alderman and candidate for MP, and journalistic experience writing a column for the parliamentary weekly newspaper The Hill Times, as well as publishing four books.

But to my surprise, further research revealed a less-promising side of Bourque. A year before graduation, Bourque dropped out of business administration at the University of Ottawa and took a job as an overnight weekend DJ at a local radio station. While studying real estate at Algonquin College, longtime family friend Pat MacAdam recalls Bourque's father sending him to a car-racing school. Bourque's latest co-written book, Car Buying Online for Dummies, mentions that he's competed in Canada, the U.S. and Europe "at a high professional level." However, when I asked him about it, he couldn't name a single race he's won. After working in the family real estate business for a while, The Globe and Mail reported, Bourque acquired an electronics repair company in partnership with his father and became its president. Two years later, the company was bankrupt and the Ontario Labour Relations Board found it in violation of Ontario labour law for its negotiating tactics with the union. The board's majority decision also held Bourque personally liable, finding him to be "an evasive and untruthful witness, whose testimony was highly influenced by self-interest."

In 1991, Bourque was appointed an interim alderman to fill a vacancy on Ottawa city council. The reporters I spoke with who covered local politics for the Ottawa Citizen at the time couldn't recall a single legislative accomplishment of his, although to be fair, Bourque only served for eight months. MacAdam recalls Bourque's father assisting in Bourque's subsequent election bid. Nonetheless, Bourque lost his seat and didn't fare any better as a candidate for the federal Liberals in the '93 election.

It was during this campaign, communicating via e-mail with party headquarters, that Bourque first became interested in the Internet. Six months later, after losing another run for Ottawa city council, Bourque combined his new interest in the Internet with his love of politics by writing a column about the Net for The Hill Times, a weekly that serves as the newspaper of Parliament Hill. Hill Times editor Jim Creskey remembers meeting a "buttoned-down kind of guy. He looked like a politician." As Creskey explains, Bourque's column is basically a listing of websites with Bourque's opinions about them. Later, his name appeared on two books about the Freenet, but according to co-author Rosaleen Dickson, he didn't actually write them, he only participated in the research phase. The only book Bourque ever wrote on his own, Government Online in Canada, features a two-page preface by Bourque, some guest columns, and 303 pages listing URLs, with occasional descriptions of sites.

Contrast that with Matt Drudge, whose recent book, Drudge Manifesto, deals with the impact the Web is having on the mass media through his experiences as an Internet-based "citizen-reporter." This illustrates a significant difference between these two men: Drudge is eager to express and exercise his vision of how the Internet can empower individuals to take on the powers that be, while including some links to relevant websites. Bourque is primarily a lister of links, who sprinkles a few reports of his own on the side.

Bourque told me that Bourque Newswatch gets over 100,000 hits per day, although he refuses to release exact numbers. Considering that Canada has about a tenth the population of the U.S., this would make him competitive with Drudge, whose site receives over 1,000,000 hits per day. When I contacted Media Metrix, a company measuring Web traffic whose press releases Bourque links to, its figures revealed that out of the 6,500 randomly sampled Canadians' home Internet use it tracked during September, none had logged into Bourque Newswatch.

Perhaps Media Metrix's sample was too broad to gauge its readership among journalists. After all, at the beginning of my research, National Post columnist Paul Wells told me, "If you throw a brick in Ottawa, you hit a Bourque reader." Indeed, finding political PR people who log in wasn't difficult. However, among daily reporters, I discovered that while almost all of them had heard of it, finding ones who use it often proved more elusive than Wells suggested. Some journalists who didn't log in regularly thought they were the exception. "Now you're going to use me as the example of the idiot who doesn't read him," said Ottawa-based Canadian Press reporter Nahlah Ayed. She wasn't the only one, though. CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief Chris Waddell has heard of it, but never logs in. National Post Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife rarely does, and then, it's only for the links. The same goes for former Sun Media parliamentary bureau chief Sean Durkan and Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief Shawn McCarthy. When I asked Globe and Mail reporter Paul Adams about it, he told me: "I don't hear it coming up frequently in conversations I have with other journalists and with political people."

A few journalists did tell me they logged in regularly; however, it was usually for the links to other sites. Michel Vastel says he finds Bourque's links to headlines useful, particularly early in the morning before reaching his office, where the newspapers arrive.

Richard Madan checked in at least once a day while an assignment editor at local Ottawa station The New RO, but he doesn't consider Bourque a reporter. "I consider him a news provider," says Madan. "Meaning he spends a good four, five hours scanning the papers and scanning the wires, which is something that's vital to me." A former political aide, Madan believes that most Bourque readers are low-level staffers and aides to backbench MPs.

CTV commentator Mike Duffy, to whom Bourque would later suggest I speak, also told me he uses the site primarily for the links. "It's not critical to me. If it disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn't be a big deal." Bourque himself told me that he doesn't mind if people ignore his content and only use the links. "Ninety-nine percent of what I do is make sure that I have appropriate news links," says Bourque. "As long as they come, I don't care why they come."

Not that Bourque isn't sensitive about his site. "I think it's a great lead provider to a lot of legacy media journalists," Bourque would later tell me. "Journalists have a public stance and then a private one." Indeed, some journalists need to be off the record to fully explain why they don't visit the site, as the following exchange with a veteran Ottawa reporter who agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity demonstrates:

"Is this on the record?"

"I'd prefer it that way."

"Then, I can't really tell you that—I'm indifferent."

"Okay, off the record" (He later agreed to my use of the conversation.)

"He's wrong at least half the time and it's busy enough in here without having to chase down erroneous rumours."

Throughout these interviews, I remembered journalists attacking Drudge's credibility on television talk shows. Yet in the end, Drudge was right: there was a dress containing physical evidence. I wondered if, perhaps, journalists are trashing Bourque because they're jealous he's breaking stories they haven't. After all, CTV's Kirk LaPointe, with whom Bourque would later suggest I speak, says that while he logs in mostly for the links, Bourque's accuracy is "no worse than the typical Ottawa pundit."

As I fact-checked Bourque, I discovered that he has broken a number of stories and gotten them right. Mainstream news outlets like the Vancouver Province credited him with being the first to report that Jean Charest was moving to the Quebec Liberals. More recently, he was first to reveal that Brian Pallister would make the move from the federal Conservative Party to the Canadian Alliance, and that House Speaker Gilbert Parent would retire, both two days before the fact. Bourque also beat the rest of the pack by a few hours in reporting that Tom Long was a dual citizen and calling the date Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow announced his retirement. His biggest scoop, however, was his September report that Prime Minister Jean Chretien was going to call an election in the fall.

Notwithstanding these triumphs, it's easy to see why some are less than bullish on Bourque when one considers how many stories he's gotten wrong. A day before reporting that Chretien planned to call a fall election, Bourque boasted about being first with the news that there would be no fall election. Bourque's July reports on who would get which post in Stockwell Day's shadow cabinet managed not only to get all but two of the positions wrong, it also misreported the date Day was supposed to announce it. Bourque's August 14 report that CA leadership hopeful Keith Martin would end up sitting as a Tory or an independent when Day won the by-election proved false, as did his September 27 item that "lovestruck" Ontario Premier Mike Harris would announce his retirement by the end of the year. Tory MP Elsie Wayne did not resign the following Monday and accept a Senate appointment, as Bourque suggested on October 13. And contrary to Bourque's October 16 report, Liberal MP Mac Harb was not appointed to the Senate later that week, nor did Penny Collenette, "wife of Chretien stooge David," replace him in the House.

"It's almost like a stock rumours board," says Globe and Mail reporter Mark MacKinnon, comparing news tips on Bourque Newswatch with stock tips on the Internet. "Sure, if you went and sat on Yahoo Stock Chat, you'd eventually hit gold, but if there are 10 rumours and you bet $10 on each of them, your odds aren't that strong." MacKinnon chuckles while skimming through Bourque's archive of notes, "If he was a mutual fund manager, I wouldn't recommend him to my friends. It's just better to do your own research."

If Bourque were a funds manager, he would specialize in small caps and penny stocks. Most of Bourque's reporting deals with such mundane matters as party youth squabbles, the musings of backbench MPs, nomination battles in remote ridings and appointments to obscure committees. I've been called a political junkie by many, but even I don't care about University of Toronto student and PC Youth member Patrick Brown "eyeing" a run for Barrie city council, as Bourque reported on August 24. It's as though Bourque is more concerned with quantity than quality. Drudge, on the other hand, often goes for a week or two without filing any reports, but when he does, the reports are often accurate and always interesting. Also, Bourque's frequent spelling errors—including cabinet ministers' names—and his often ungrammatical sentence structure demonstrate carelessness. Would anyone blame readers if they wondered whether Bourque is equally careless when it comes to his reporting?

October 26: Harris to Endorse Day?

"Absolutely no supporting information and it turned out to be completely false," says Glen McGregor, Ottawa Citizen reporter and editor of the paper's "What the Gargoyle Heard" gossip column. "In fact, that very day Harris was giving a speech kinda making it clear that he was staying out of the federal election."

Actually, there was some supporting information, though it wasn't posted on Bourque's site. I know. I was the source. I needed to know for sure what kind of standard Bourque applies to his sources and their stories before posting them, so I set up Hotmail account under the pen name "Brother Blue" and e-mailed Bourque a fictitious "tip." It claimed that at the previous day's PC party convention, at which I was an "observer," I'd heard that Mike Harris was facing increasing pressure from his cabinet to endorse Stockwell Day. I didn't identify myself and Bourque never asked. After posting my tip on his site, he replied to the Hotmail account saying: "Thanks for this!" When most journalists attribute information to an anonymous source, generally they at least know who the source is. If Bourque had done even a cursory follow-up on the tip I sent him, he would have immediately realized it was baseless.

The following day, when I looked for the item in Bourque's archives, the story wasn't there. It's a good thing I had kept the e-mails Bourque sends out periodically, because when I later looked for Bourque's erroneous item predicting that Chretien was not going to call a fall election, it too had disappeared.

When I began work on this story last fall, Bourque agreed to cooperate. After I briefly interviewed him over the phone and began my research in earnest, however, most of my e-mail requests to schedule interviews went unanswered. When he did reply, he wrote, "What's in it for me?" or "I've been trying to figure out how this interview request is in my best interests." To me, his indecisiveness and concerns about his "interests" suggested a sense of angst. His steadfast refusal to send me a copy of his archive of reporting going back beyond what was on his site also suggested to me that he lacked pride in his work. Finally, he agreed to an interview, but an hour was all he could spare over a period of weeks. When the big day came, Bourque didn't answer the phone. He e-mailed me later that day with another phone number and told me to call him the next day. Again there was no answer at the time we'd agreed, but I kept calling and eventually got in touch. Though Bourque never apologized for his abuse of my time, he did threaten to cut the conversation short when I asked him to provide details about his car-racing career. He wouldn't refer me to anyone who knows him personally, and his brother, whose car dealership for a time was Bourque's only sponsor on his site, refused to return my calls. Other than Rosaleen Dickson, who worked with Bourque on two books about the Freenet, I couldn't find anyone who knows him well and often spends time with him socially. "He's a bit of a Howard Hughes," said Kirk LaPointe.

As long as he doesn't have to provide too many details, Bourque likes talking about himself: "I'm not a journalist by profession, I'm just a news junkie," he told me. "And their [news junkies'] tips are as important to me as a tip I get from an operative in the parliamentary press gallery, and I get a lot of those."

When confronted with the critiques of his site by members of the press gallery, Bourque provided substantive answers to only two of them. To the question of his archiving policy, Bourque made it clear that 99 percent of what he posts on his site can be found in his archives. He defended his report claiming there would be no fall election by insisting that he was asking a question: Would there be a fall election?However, I'd kept his original e-mail, marked "urgent." Though it ends with a disclaimer reminding readers that "with Jean you never know 100%," no question mark appears in the entire e-mail.

Bourque couldn't think of any stories he's posted that in retrospect he wishes he had waited on, or not posted at all. He responded to the rest of the criticisms by dismissing the reporters making them, rather than on the substance of the critiques. "I think Globe and Mail reporters hold themselves in a high opinion and it behooves them not to lend any weight to others who are outside their immediate sphere of camaraderie," Bourque told me. "What's happening here is going to transcend them and they're ill-prepared to adapt to it." A little later, he added, "I mean, if you're a Mark McKinnon or Paul Adams, you've gotta be defecating in your pants if you're on the Internet."

Putting others down is one of Bourque's least-charming characteristics. After the National Post published an unflattering story about Bourque's father's financial dealings, Bourque struck back, posting personal financial information about the real estate holdings of a number of journalists in the Southam chain. When he actually gets a story right, he isn't above using his site to jibe reporters who write it up the next day. Perhaps putting down others is Bourque's way of elevating himself. But when it comes to put-downs, the savagely satirical Frank, located right in Bourque's hometown and a must-read around Parliament Hill, is king. Frank has taken to pointing out Bourque's factual foul-ups for fun. When I asked him about it, Bourque denied having heard of Frank, which is like a member of the Hollywood paparazzi claiming he's never heard of The National Enquirer.

Perhaps a more constructive approach might be for Bourque to formulate a detailed plan of how to run the site and follow through in a consistent manner. When I spoke with him, he told me that he decides whether to post a tip on his site by "gut instinct." As he says, "It just follows from how I particularly feel. Y'know, do you like the colour blue, over red? It just depends."

When I asked Bourque what goals he hopes to accomplish with his site, he told me, "The mission of my site is to provide as complete a list—. I don't really have a statement, except that my statement is 'Tomorrow's News Now.' That's my slogan, 'Tomorrow's News Now.' So it's the site you go to to read about news first." Is it any wonder that in three years, Bourque has not come near to enjoying Drudge's success?

Bourque's dismal batting average would likely not have surprised famed Yankee outfielder Joe DiMaggio. "A ball player's got to be kept hungry to become a big leaguer," observed DiMaggio in the spring of '61. "That's why no boy from a rich family ever made the big leagues." Maybe Bourque just isn't as hungry as Drudge. It's not inconceivable that Bourque will one day stumble upon a major scoop. However, according to Stockwell Day's former communications director, Phil von Finkenstein, Bourque doesn't even have to because, von Finkenstein believes, Bourque already is "the Matt Drudge of Canada." Yet not only could von Finkenstein not think of a story Bourque has broken that comes close to the Lewinsky scandal, he couldn't name a single story Bourque has broken at all.

Dave Mitchell, program director of Ottawa talk radio station CFRA, who hired Bourque to replace Dr. Laura during last fall's election campaign, points to Bourque's reporting on the ailing Trudeau. While a number of journalists acknowledge Bourque being first with the story that Trudeau had cancer (it was already known that he had pneumonia, Parkinson's and a few other ailments), no one was able to confirm that he was in hospital, as Bourque reported. As for Bourque's allegation of a conspiracy to pressure media outlets into withholding the story from the public and preventing journalists from investigating, most think it far-fetched and bizarre, since those who pursued the story say they did so without interference.

But some will defend Bourque to the bitter end. "Maybe he [Trudeau] had been there and then gone home," speculates Mitchell. Maybe. Or maybe it was just the contents of an anonymous e-mail prank.

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