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Buffoons make it easy

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Journalism is a great job. I’ve always felt that what I do beats working for a living. Some of my detractors may agree with that comment, although they may apply a completely different connotation. Anyway, the days I love being a journalist usually involve stories like this.....

Out in British Columbia, a provincial election is being waged amidst a wave of candidate resignations. First, it was NDP candidate Ray Lam who withdrew after risqué photos of him were found on his Facebook page. The NDP campaign headquarters said the photos were not posted on his networking site when he put his name forward to be a candidate. Apparently, in an act of unadulterated political stupidity, Lam went out and posted the grin-and-grope shots AFTER his name was put on the ballot.

Lam clearly forgot to go through the candidate’s check list before declaring his candidacy:

"Okay, rent campaign office, print up signs and brochures, sign up volunteers, create fundraising list and last, but not least, remove pictures of unidentified friends with their hands down my pants from Facebook page. Check, check, check, check and most definitely check."

And then, the B.C. campaign claimed another hapless victim. Solicitor General John van Dongen, the Liberal incumbent in Abbotsford, was forced to resign his cabinet post after it was learned his driver’s licence had been suspended for racking up nine speeding tickets. The province’s former top cop, who remains a candidate in this election, had his licence suspended prior to the writ being dropped but he failed to mention this setback to Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell.

Media outlets in the lower mainland had a field day with van Dongen’s predicament. Aiding their cause was a photograph taken in February, when van Dongen’s released a new, high-security driver’s licence. The image of the now disgraced former cabinet minister holding an enormous, novelty-sized driver’s licence is too perfect.

Can you imagine the afternoon story meeting where the Van Dongen story was discussed:

News Editor: "This just in – Van Dongen has resigned his post as solicitor general because he lost his driver’s licence. Photo – what art do we have of Van Dongen?"

Photo Editor: "Well, let’s check the archives. I have a shot of him making an announcement behind a podium, another of him making an announcement beside a podium, another of him at the podium factory standing on a forklift and – whoa!!!!!! – here’s one of him holding a GIANT, OVERSIZED NOVELTY DRIVER’S LICENSE!!!!"

Managing Editor: "Nice work boys. This is one of those days I’m proud to be a newspaperman."

Of course, there are days when it sucks to be a journalist. Like the day you write a column, as I did on the weekend, about Manitoba’s next fixed-date election. Now, I’m fully aware that the date of the next election is October 4, 2011. But for reasons that only a top neurosurgeon could figure out, I wrote October 2010.

Let the spanking begin. Thanks to those readers who gently pointed out the mistake. For those who ripped me a new orifice, I guess I had that coming.

In making this error, I join a long and illustrious list of otherwise accomplished journalists who suffered brain farts while sitting in front of the computer keyboard. I’d like to say it was my only brain fart, but I’d be lying. I once wrote two separate background features on an upcoming federal budget where I referenced Finance Minister Michael Wilson. Problem was, it was 1995 and the finance minister was Paul Martin. To add to the absurdity of this mental block was the fact that the same editor handled the copy, and both times bought into my brain fart. Sheesh.

Sometimes, stupid mistakes are not the result of brain farts. Sometimes, factors beyond the control of your average scribe conspire to create a tragic result. My favourite story involves a reporter (not me thankfully) who was calling around for reaction to a provincial budget. The reporter wanted to talk to someone from a lobby group that represented seniors. She found the name of the president and the phone number in our contact file, and called. She introduced herself, asked if she was speaking to Joanne Smith (the actual name escapes me now) and when the woman said yes, proceeded to gather some biting comments about the budget. Write story; file story; Miller time.

The next morning, the reporter got a phone call from Joanne Smith. "Who did you call last night for comment, because it wasn’t me?" an angry Mrs. Smith said. "Joanne Smith," said the reporter. "What number did you call?" When the reporter gave her the phone number, it turned out that the interview had been conducted with Mrs. Smith’s 95-year-old mother, who was not entirely of this world. Write correction; file correction; pour can of Miller over your head.

Sometimes, journalism is easy and satisfying. Other times, it feels like you’re walking through a mine field with clown shoes on.

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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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