The distinct “pop” of small arms fire cracked the still air near Kandahar City. But the soldiers didn’t even look up.
They dove to the ground, as did CTV reporter Lisa LaFlamme, into a sprawling meadow of poppies that provided scant cover for two dozen Canadians on daylight foot patrol. Crouched beside cameraman Dave Brunet, LaFlamme saw a bullet strike the ground three metres away — a Taliban harbinger of a 12-hour gun battle in the volatile Panjwayi district.
The journalists were pinioned. Wearing a flak jacket and helmet, the girl raised in the sleepy safety of Kitchener-Waterloo wondered if that day would be her last on Earth.
“I remember at one point looking at my cameraman and thinking: ‘Is this how I’m supposed to die? In a poppy field in Afghanistan?’” she said of that 2008 assignment embedded with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry’s Hotel Company.
Scrappy, cool and enterprising — “I’d just go behind the biggest guy,” said the woman who doesn’t work out and scoffs at joining a gym — LaFlamme squat-walked on and off for hours. The soldiers eventually hid her and Brunet behind a mud hut wall until the last bullet was fired in anger.
“She’s fearless, honest to God, she’s fearless, and that’s one of the ways she’s different from the rest of us,” says eldest sister Joanne McKenzie of her sibling — the third of four LaFlamme daughters — who’s reported from war zones, the rubble of 9/11, post-Katrina New Orleans, the federal scenes in Washington and Ottawa, the BP oil spill and the Vancouver Olympics.
“I don’t know if she knew she was going to be a journalist when she was a little girl, but we all knew she was going to be something.”
The next “something” in LaFlamme’s career is the pinnacle of her profession. The battle-tested, globetrotting star reporter will become the network’s national news anchor.
CTV announced in July the 46-year-old would replace Lloyd Robertson, 76, sometime in 2011 as chief anchor and senior editor. Unlike Global’s Dawna Friesen, who debuted Monday, LaFlamme — who’s still reporting — has been a regular fill-in as anchor, transitioning from CTV’s go-to gal in the field to the network’s nighttime face.
“It’s the best job in broadcast journalism,” said LaFlamme, who should command a salary of around $300,000 to $350,000 as a full-time anchor according to a variety of broadcast experts.
CTV’s 11 p.m. broadcast is Canada’s top-rated national news program based on the simplest definition: the total audience numbers (not broken down by demographics) of about 1.2 million for newscasts from Monday to Friday.
The fiercely competitive networks each spin the ratings numbers their own way. CBC adds together its 10 p.m. network broadcast (650,000 viewers) and its CBCNN offering (350,000), to claim about a million viewers each weekday, roughly equal to what Global has.
CTV’s president of news, Robert Hurst, said his network is on top for “10,000 reasons,” a list that starts with two people.
“Reason No. 1, Lloyd Robertson. Reason No. 2, Lisa LaFlamme,” he said.
But in promoting LaFlamme, CTV management passed over another network stalwart, Tom Clark, who this month left the company with little explanation.
In an email, Clark didn’t answer a question about whether he was disappointed not to inherit Robertson’s spot but did note “recent reports, by (the Star’s) Susan Delacourt among others, stating that I was neither angry nor bitter are quite true.”
“Those reports also stated that leaving CTV was not my idea, and that too is accurate,” Clark wrote. “Beyond that, I can’t say much more.”
So if Clark was interested in the job, as media watchers claim, why LaFlamme?
Age, not gender, was a tipping point, figures Howard Bernstein, a seasoned news director who has worked at Global, CTV and CBC.
“I don’t think either one of them was a poor choice so the only thing that separates them is age,” said Bernstein. The independent producer said LaFlamme gives the network “a minimum of 20 years” before potential retirement while Clark’s shelf-life is half that. Clark is in his late 50s.
In the late 1980s, Bernstein wanted to hire LaFlamme, then a promising reporter in Kitchener-Waterloo, when he was Global’s news director. That bid was scuttled “because my boss didn’t like her hair,” he said.
Seriously, her hair cost her a job?
Male broadcasters’ coifs rarely attract notice: Peter Mansbridge’s widening pate on CBC’s nightly news draws no criticism. But LaFlamme’s chestnut tresses, the right side swept back like a Nike swoosh, can fill a frame. Yet LaFlamme understands the hair fixation because her father always wanted that thick mane tamed. So she shares a story.
While a University of Ottawa student, David LaFlamme was airlifted to Toronto General after suffering a serious heart attack. His daughter drove to visit, then was puzzled when her dad, ashen and weak in bed, asked her to fetch his wallet.
“He said, ‘Take 20 bucks and get your hair cut,’ ” she said, laughing.
That laugh is frequent, a husky guffaw reminiscent of Suzanne Pleshette’s throaty onscreen purr. LaFlamme’s a fan of raucous wit (comedians Will Ferrell, Jon Stewart and Olympic co-host James Duthie of TSN crack her up). She said a sense of humour and confidence bolstered by her all-girls, Catholic schooling helps neutralize bitchy barbs aimed at her appearance.
“You can’t work in this business without at some point — well, many points probably — being aware you’re a woman in what was certainly a man’s business,” she said, sipping a home-perked coffee in her lush, flowered midtown backyard.
“But being raised the way we were and through that kind of (all-female) schooling, it instilled in you that there’s absolutely nothing you can’t do.”
McKenzie said little Lisa embodied that girl-power spirit at school, winning speech contests, merit awards and friends. Years later, she sang with “The Power of Shuh”: a garage band of CKCO TV station colleagues in Kitchener. To this day, LaFlamme plays guitar and sings for her family around campfires.
“Lisa had personality plus from day one,” said McKenzie, 48.
“She was very effervescent and had a magnetism that attracted people to her (and) that’s the way she’s been her whole life; interested in a lot of things, interested in everything; she’s got lots and lots of friends.”
At home, the kitchen table was a training ground for a future newshound. Joanne, Colleen, Lisa and Christine — born within five years of each other — walked home for lunch every day from school. David, a general contractor, would drive home to join them and wife Kathleen while listening to radio host Andy Barrie on CFRB en route.
“Whatever Andy Barrie’s debate was, it became our debate,” LaFlamme said. “I think I realized then just how interesting it is to look at current events — what’s shaping us — then to be able to write about (the news) and travel to these places has been a gift.”
Some of those places have been perilous, particularly over the past eight years she’s been CTV’s national affairs reporter.
Warrant Officer Patrick Tower met LaFlamme in 2006 when she was embedded with the Edmonton-based Princess Pats’ 1st Battalion.
Early in her two-week assignment with the Pats, LaFlamme was in the back of a steaming hot LAV bouncing over broken terrain at 80 kilometres an hour. Stomach burbling after downing a foil-pouched meal of wieners and beans, she vomited into an empty ration bag.
Tower saw “she was turning all colours of green and going to be sick,” and took a photo as she spewed. The sloshing package was passed along to a standing sentry, its biley contents spilling on snickering soldiers, and tossed.
“She was really embarrassed, but to us it was a big joke,” said Tower. “When we got back to camp she got mad at me (about the photo). She said, ‘I’ve got a reputation.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but it’s funny.’ ”
They became friends because LaFlamme worked on a soldier’s terms, Tower said.
“She ate rations; when we went to bed at night she slept on the ground right beside us,” said Tower, who still keeps in touch with the journalist. “She wasn’t some sort of diva, she wasn’t expecting some special treatment; she went out there and lived the way we did and reported exactly what we did, and that means the most to us.”
Then tragedy struck the Pats.
LaFlamme also met Sgt. Vaughn Ingram — Tower’s best friend — that March of 2006. Five months later, Ingram was dead. He was one of three Canadians killed in a ferocious battle during which Tower’s bravery earned him Canada’s first Star of Military Valour.
LaFlamme drops her head, briefly, when talking about Ingram and others she’d met who have since died overseas. This year, death became even more personal. Her father died Jan. 8, succumbing to pulmonary fibrosis after “an awful 18 months.”
“I always say if there are character witnesses on your road to heaven, he had five women singing his praises in the last hours of his life,” she said, quietly.
As an adult, LaFlamme spoke to her parents and sisters nearly every day. But her relationship with her dad was different: He was mentor, coach, confidante, fan and, of course, a loyal CTV viewer.
“He would be my point man, even on news stories. I’d be in Baghdad, for instance, phoning him (to get) the ‘everyman’ reaction,” she said.
“He pulled no punches. He had an incredible gift of being able to see through phoniness (and) thankfully, I think I inherited that gene, the beautiful bulls–t detector.”
TSN’s Gemini-winning hockey host Duthie teamed with LaFlamme in Vancouver just weeks after her father’s death.
“A lot of people believe the typical newsperson is very cold and the story overrides any emotion. Lisa is the opposite where she wears her heart very much on her sleeve,” said Duthie.
“Her father was a massive sports fan and here she is doing something, in her mind (believing) he’d be more proud of her than anything she’d ever done and he wasn’t there to see it,” he continued. “Honestly, I think she was fighting that the entire time she was there.”
Grief didn’t dampen her news instincts.
On the Games’ opening day, a Georgian luger was killed during a training run. It was also the debut for CTV’s daytime coverage featuring Duthie and LaFlamme, and the carefully rehearsed broadcast now had a deadline dilemma: how to cover the death as a news story then move, respectfully, into the joyous opening ceremonies.
“She didn’t take over, but she had a lot of say into how we transitioned it,” said Duthie. For instance, LaFlamme insisted the accident footage be shown only once, not twice as was an early plan, and with a warning of its graphic nature. About one minute to air, the group decided to follow her lead.
“That was when it was clear that, boy, we’re glad we have her here,” Duthie said.
LaFlamme brings that news instinct — plus Twitter savvy to monitor breaking stories — to the anchor desk. Anchoring, in turn, gives her the regular routine she wants. Married briefly in her 20s, LaFlamme has no children and wants to stay physically near her eight nieces and nephews who live in the K-W area.
“This is as close to motherhood as I get,” she giggles, hugging 16-year-old nieces Fiona McKenzie and Courtney Lang, who’d bunked at their aunt’s after attending a John Mayer concert in Toronto.
From the front-lines to the home front. But will the news junkie sent to cover the planet’s biggest stories over the last decade be able to sit still at a desk for the rest of her career?
“I actually said that to someone the other day — ask me in two years,” she said.
“The show will travel depending on the significance of the story. Travel will be part of my life but hopefully not to the point when there’s always a suitcase sitting there, half full.”
For the record, there is a suitcase sitting in LaFlamme’s home now, half full.
CO-HOST? No significant other. No human, at least, just Barney, her 11-year-old yellow lab. “I’m still holding out hope, let’s put it that way.”
THE BAGHDAD DIET LaFlamme picked up a parasite that destroyed 30 per cent of one kidney while covering the 2003 Iraq invasion. She became deathly ill, collapsed in Baghdad, was flown to Jordan for treatment and lost 17 pounds. The worst part? She was in hospital when Saddam Hussein crawled out of the infamous spider hole.