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Journalist on a Mission

Published on 16 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

In my last post, I promised to continue my look at the collusion of corporate efforts to prevent internet piracy, but in the past couple of days I’ve been pondering Carole Cadwalladr’s shocking interview with Jason Russell in The Guardian. And though there have already been two Diplo blog posts on this subject, I thought I’d add my own to the mix.

Russell is the person responsible for the Kony2012 video which was launched roughly a year ago and became a massive viral success unlike anything the world has ever seen. The US charity behind the film, Invisible Children, became hugely discussed online and a subject of controversy almost immediately. Then, apparently in reaction to the pressure, Russell had a very public naked mental breakdown on video that probably got as much attention as the original Kony2012 video.

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That episode appeared to end the whole Kony2012 spectacle for most people.

Full disclosure: I haven’t actually watched Kony2012 in its entirety. I got through the first five minutes or so, which is all about things absolutely unconnected to warlord Joseph Kony and Uganda, the purported subjects of the documentary. Instead, there was a distinct focus on Russell and his family: his son being born and goofing around adorably, and I got the uncomfortable feeling that my emotions were being manipulated. Does it really take a cute blonde American kid to make something viral these days? In that case, I’ll take the non-viral version, thank you.

But my qualms in this case aren’t really with Russell’s directorial style but rather with Cadwalladr’s complete lack of journalistic objectivity in the article. Russell and Invisible Children are presented in the most sympathetic light possible. She’s clearly out to help them and ignore any possible niggling concerns about the charity and its intent. She’s a journalist on a mission.

As it turns out, there are in fact a lot of legitimate concerns about Invisible Children and Kony2012, from its simplistic and naive personality cult-like focus on a single person, to ignoring present-day realities of Uganda, to making a celebrity out of a mass murderer. Yet Cadwalladr dismisses most of the criticism towards IC as jealousy due to the film’s massive success, or simple human cruelty. She spends a lot of time justifying Russell’s bizarre burnout following Kony2012’s success, which to me is the least interesting aspect of this entire episode – people might go nuts sometimes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that their ideas are without merit. Any legitimate criticism, I imagine she would think, could be explained away with an ‘ends justifies the means’ type argument.

All of this is summed up in the closing lines of the article, with Russell sympathetically claiming, ‘We are genuinely trying to stop a madman from slaughtering children. That’s it.’ But what Cadwalladr fails to address is how they intend to do that and the implication of what it means. IC supports armed intervention by the Ugandan army in capturing Kony and stopping his LRA forces, but is this really a good idea? Would it lead to greater carnage? I wonder if IC’s cure might be deadlier than its symptoms. And one could, let’s face it, use this same logic to attack people who visit abortion clinics: ‘Hey, I’m genuinely trying to stop people from murdering unborn children. That’s it…’

Russell also bitterly notes to Cadwalladr that criticism of Kony2012 spread like wildfire, unverified. ‘This is a generation raised on an Instagram and a tweet,’ he says. ‘That’s your news. That’s your actual news.’ Ironically, IC wants Kony2012 to be perceived in exactly the same way, spreading quickly without being challenged in any way.

I do admire people who try to improve the world and, in particular, fight the fights that don’t get a lot of attention on the world stage. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be objectively critical of them, and respectable journalists in particular should adhere to this principle.

2 replies
  1. Steven Nelson
    Steven Nelson says:

    By a “complete lack of
    By a “complete lack of journalistic objectivity,” I meant that the author of the Guardian article was biased towards Russell and his charity’s agenda. She ignored or explained away any criticism of him, the organization, and the film, apparently since she supports his message and the organization’s cause. But this isn’t what reputable journalists do – they report on issues and consider all sides of a story. It’s important that they remain objective, since otherwise we are unable to trust their judgements and conclusions.

    With the internet opening up so many new sources of news reporting, reputation and trust are more important than ever, and will continue to be so.

  2. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:

    Fascinating, Steven, how you
    Fascinating, Steven, how you read the same article I blogged (The perfect internet storm) differently. Yes, I’ve seen both films IC made – not my taste, I’ll admit, but then I’m not into emphaticalism, US or any other style. Were you to go back in history to Gladstone’s Midlothian Orations (Bulgarian Atrocities) you’d probably find numerous point of missionarian congruence.
    You did not find the personal crisis of RUSSELL interesting – when to me it showed the unintended effects of virality, and held up a warning sign to all who’d venture into the internet quicksands. As for ” complete lack of journalistic objectivity” – please, explain. There is no such a thing, given that by choosing one story, any journalist suppresses the rest. One is never innocent.

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