Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Day 4 - less than a week in and integrity appears to be the first casualty of the campaign

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As the sun (that's right, sunny again) rises on beautiful Vancouver, I'll pause for a moment of silence to mark the swift, painful death of integrity in this campaign.Pooping puffins were probably the biggest story of Day Three. The animated coastal bird that defecated on Liberal Leader Stephane Dion in a Tory web attack forced Prime Minister Stephen Harper to disown the webmaster responsible and apologize to his Liberal opponent. Harper did not, however, tone down the smear campaign the Tories have been running on their primary attack site, notaleader.ca, a long-running website that basically does everything it can to portray Dion as a misguided nerd.There is no doubt that Dion's personal style suggests he isn't the kind of guy who dated the captain of the cheerleading squad in high school, but the unbridled character assassination contained in notaleader is way over the top. Among the facts that the Tories want voters to know about Dion - he continues to eat his hotdogs with a knife and fork in plain view of "regular people and the media." What's next - drinking tea with a spoon? Clearly, anyone incapable of stuffing a tube steak directly into their mouths without utensils is unqualified to be prime minister.On the same day, Dion told reporters he has a hereditary hearing defect that explains in part why his grasp of English is so poor. On-line Tory chat boards screamed foul, accusing the Grit leader of manufacturing a handicap to defuse their effusive attacks on his character.The Liberals are hardly innocent. The frat boys and girls in the Liberal war room have come up with Scandalpedia, a saucy site that consolidates all kinds of information about a raft of controversies that have dogged the Tories since winning a minority government in 2006. The dark webmasters in the Grit bunker no doubt laughed so hard they pissed their pants when they came up with this one. Although Scandalpedia lacks some of the unfettered hostility of notaleader, it's all part of the same web motif. That is to say, it's primarily sophomoric humour that has little resonance with non-partisans.Campaign E-ttacks are probably the clearest example that some key staff in most of the mainstream party campaigns lack character. The party websites themselves are pretty sober affairs, but the spin off sites are starting to look less like genuine campaign literatures and more like the student newspaper from the faculty of engineering. And in the best traditions of blogging trolls and flamethrowers, the authors of the material operate anonymously and below grade, known only to the leaders and their strategists.What I'm having trouble figuring out is what the Tories and Liberals hope to accomplish with these E-ttacks. Clearly, the only thing that's going to save Dion now is a groundswell of sympathy. Isn't it a fairly safe bet that a goodly number of uncommitted voters would look at notaleader.ca and gag a bit at the sheer nastiness it represents? How is that going to affect voting decisions on e-day?There is no evidence that the internet and content such as this is effective. Politicians have for nearly a decade been trying to harness the enormous potential of the internet as a tool for political organization and electioneering. Although more and more people are getting their news from on-line sources, and traffic is no doubt off the charts at the E-ttack sites (loading notaleader is a 50-50 proposition these days), it seems foolish to be experimenting with volatile personal attacks on line until someone comes up with a theory about how it affects the electorate.The technology that allows people to instantly communicate and comment and connect is quite often dominated by character assassins that use the immediacy and anonymity of the internet to grind axes, push unaccountable special interests and polish the chips on their shoulders. What these subterranean bullies don't realize is that even if it turns off as many people as it turns on, it will be a losing strategy. E-ttacks will surely backfire on the Tories and Liberals as it only serves to debase, lowering expectations and faith in politicians and politics.NOTE: Read more on the painfully low standards of this campaign in my column in tomorrow’s dead-tree FP.*****The decision to exclude Green Party leader Elizabeth May from the televised debates is just dumb, dumb, dumb. Forget the debate over democracy, fairness and transparency. A leader who clearly would have been struggling to keep up had she been allowed to participate is now a martyr. What possible benefit is there in that for the Tories, Liberals and NDP?UPDATE (1:45 PM PT/3:45 CT): What's the one thing worse for the Libs, Tories and NDP than making May a martyr? Making her a martyr, then backing down and letting her participate, and in so doing making that martyr a champion of professional women everywhere.First Jack Layton, and now Stephen Harper, clarify their positions to say that they are willing to appear with May at the debates. As I write this, the TV consortium has yet to confirm they are going to offer an invitation, although it seems unthinakable they won't.The Greens must be wondering which God has bestowed upon them such providence.For interesting background on the complicity of the TV networks in this mess, read Tony Burman's column in the Globe and Mail. It raises an important question about the whole debate flap:Why didn't the TV networks TELL the parties who was participating in the debates, and then let them decide whether they wanted to participate? There seems to be a sense that Harper, as Burman puts it, had a veto. Really, would Harper have run the risk of skipping the debates? I think his cave on this shows that if the networks called his bluff, he would have folded this hand quite a bit earlier.I'm just saying.-30-

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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