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Is there anything worse than someone not getting a joke? Yes, there is. It’s someone misinterpreting a joke as fact and turning it into a national scandal.

Dan Friedman knows all about it.

A reporter with New York’s Daily News, Friedman recently recounted how a flippant question to a government source almost scuttled U.S. President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence.

Friedman was looking into allegations that Hagel was accepting speaking fees from controversial organizations.

He contacted a Republican aide and asked if he knew whether Hagel had made any recent speeches to the “Junior League of Hezbollah” or “Friends of Hamas.”

“The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically,” he wrote. “No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.”

But this is the U.S., and the Republican Party. It didn’t take long for the right-wing blog Breitbart.com to post an all-cap screamer: “SECRET HAGEL DONOR?: WHITE HOUSE (SPOKESMAN) DUCKS QUESTION ON ‘FRIENDS OF HAMAS.’”

Others picked up on the accusation, and the “news” spread like wildfire. The Breitbart piece was carefully worded to remain speculative, but that made little difference. Unwittingly, Friedman had created a myth in which a respected former senator and future defence secretary had been chatting it up with terrorists.

Journalists come by flippancy naturally. It’s hard not to become a little cynical or jaded on certain topics, and humour serves as a release valve.

But in this day of electionic messaging — especially the short and pithy medium of Twitter — it’s easy to see how things can go awry.

In the late 1990s, the CBC suspended national reporter Terry Milewski after Jean Chrétien’s communications director complained that his reporting was one-sided.

Milewski had been covering the story of whether the Prime Minister’s Office was involved in the decision to pepper-spray protesters at an APEC conference in B.C.

The smoking gun was an email Milewski sent to one of the protesters in which he flippantly referred to the government as “the forces of darkness.”

In clearing Milewski’s name in 2000, this is how CBC ombudsman Marcel Pepin characterized the reference:

“I am incapable of imagining any professional journalist seriously qualifying the government as ‘the forces of darkness.’ I know dozens, though, who in private conversation would use this sort of expression cynically or jokingly about a government.”

Sometimes jokes just aren’t funny. And even when they are, they can lead to unintended consequences.

The only sure bet — not only for journalists, but anyone conducting serious business — is to put the humour on hold.

Organizations: Hamas, Daily News, CBC Republican Party APEC

Geographic location: U.S., New York, Middle East B.C.

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  • david
    February 23, 2013 - 11:45

    Update: Tristin Hopper of the National Post has done a very nice job of updating the Orlova story in the weekend edition.......complete with on-the-record quotes from the Irish Dept. of Transport, summary information on how the ship was re-spotted, recent precedent cases of a ship adrift and how it was hanlded, why Caandian taxpayers won't likely be ultimately held liable for this, and finally, quotes from William Cahill, a St. John’s lawyer and Chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s Maritime Law Section (!!!???!!!) . So...well done Telegram. You didn't havbe to waste one cent of your precious "resources" on this story after all. You just have to continue letting the national media rub your nose in it....but hey, it's free!

  • david
    February 22, 2013 - 15:15

    " Hey, Woodward, I tihnk there's something weird about htis Watergate hotel arrest report..." "Forget it, Bernstein...Washington Post readers don't want to hear about a B&E. Move on to something they'll read...do a review of that new restaurant that opened last week." Aaaaand.....scene.

  • Peter Jackson
    February 22, 2013 - 12:25

    Hi David: I think you'll find most if not all of those questions actually have been asked if you go back over our coverage. Some were answered and others were avoided. Many of the odd twists of this saga were highlighted in our editorial of Feb. 12. Right now, there is a Transport Canada investigation going on, the results of which I'm sure you'll find thoroughly reported once it is released. It's likely too early to calculate total costs, but that will also be dutifully pursued. Unfortunately, as a general interest paper, The Telegram can't devote every single article and opinion piece to this one issue. I don't think regular readers would approve.

    • david
      February 22, 2013 - 15:07

      Well, that's where we disagree. This story is of great importance....objectively much moreso than the day-after-day, week-after-week rehashing of political mudslinging and dithering, bordering on complete farce. Just imagine if this had happened anywhere off the coast of B.C. ---- not that that raises one iota of additional relevance or reason for any more outrage. But if you honestly ask yourself what kind of media firestorm THAT would most certainly create, you'd turn as red as a beet. Because you'd know that in the civilized, thinking, rarely-accountable rest of Canada, this incident would see an onslaught of public questions and explanations, apologies made, urgent responders mobilized, 24 hour surveillance established, and perhpas even heads roll. But here> Crickets. People here don't expect much of anything anymore, and their media plays their small part perfectly. You yourself, incredibly even just said it: You assume your audience wouldn't want to hear it!?! What in the world kind of answer is that? Do you report and break news and let the chips of truth fall where they may, or do you just write up little Readers' Digest stories for a "target market" of presumed simpletons?! I guess that is clear......so let's hear again how the price of gas went up 2 cents, or the RNC arrested yet another drunk driver, while the Orlova story sinks silently, unreported, and wherever and with whatever aboard of her.

    • david
      February 22, 2013 - 15:21

      As for that "Transport Canada (self-) investigation" ?! I didn't tell you, Pewter, but I can foretell the future: They will conclude that no one in any area of oversight did anything wrong...but it will serve as a "valueable learning experience" for all concerned. Oh, and that report will cost $125,000.

    • Peter Jackson
      February 24, 2013 - 20:51

      Thanks for your opinion, David. One correction: I in no way said or even implied The Telegram doesn't consider this story important. Quite the opposite. I merely said the paper is compelled by its broad readership to cover other stories as well. Again, thanks for the input. Your feedback is important to us.

  • Mr.K
    February 21, 2013 - 13:45

    This piece is "tongue in cheek"!! or someone just got punked! lol

  • david
    February 21, 2013 - 10:42

    Does anyone at the Telgram have even one iota of self-awareness? The Orlova "non-story" is out therevwaiting for someone to report it. That would be a little more pertinent to readers, and a little more effort-worthy, and possibly more profound, than all this distant navel-gazing about Barrack Obama or the CBC...don't you think?

    • Peter Jackson
      February 21, 2013 - 15:10

      David: Our archives list 21 Telegram articles on the Orlova over the past 30 days, the last of which ran Feb. 19. Is there any particular one you're interested in?

    • david
      February 22, 2013 - 11:13

      Peter: The article that I can't seem to track down is the one where some intrepid Telegram reporter, perhaps you, asks some probing, fact-finding, accountability-seeking questions about what agencies signed off (ie. issued permits, inspected or supervised) the Orlova to be towed out of St,. John's harbour, at the peak of winter storm season, with only a single, dubiously seaworthy tugboat to do the job.......especially given the added danger and hazard posed by offshore oil production facilities. How much has this SNAFU cost Canadian taxpayers to date in coast guard surveilllance costs, etc., how likely is it that Canada could end up having to pay for any future towing or pollution remediation costs, and perhaps a mention of what, if any, legal precedents for this kind of debacle are out there in the marine law case history books. That article.

    • whiny dave
      February 22, 2013 - 12:23

      It's so easy to sit back all day and do nothing but whine about the work of others. Get a job or at least get a life.