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Edward Wasserman

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Flawed Pleas for Overlooked Causes

Posted: 03/27/2012 4:23 pm

In the news have been two unusual stories, both of them exposing outrageous abuse of innocents abroad, neither one broken by what we normally consider the news media. Instead they were launched by zealous outsiders from the edges of the informational ecosystem, and were fiercely embraced, until their claims were scrutinized and found wanting.

That flight path--from fringe to mainstream and from acclaim to skepticism--is worth looking at. It says something about the way various media play together and, at times, slap each other around. And for traditionalists, it's also reassurance that the arduous work of getting the story right remains irreplaceable, no matter how polished the message and how compelling the cause.

The first story originated with the release this month, online, of a half-hour film, "Kony 2012," from a nonprofit organization called Invisible Children. The movie, an energetic piece of agit-prop from a group with strong evangelical moorings, is the centerpiece of a PR campaign to bring to justice a Central African warlord named Joseph Kony. For years, his brutal insurgency conscripted little boys as killers and little girls as sex slaves.

Although he has been at it since the 1980s and was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2005, the success of "Kony 2012" gave him unparalleled notoriety. Downloaded some 100 million times, it has drawn a gush of celebrity support.

The second story was the public radio broadcast of a powerful expose by a Chicago monologuist named Mike Daisey on working conditions in some of the vast Chinese sweatshops that assemble Apple Inc.'s coolest toys. Daisey had gone to China, hired an interpreter, conducted interviews, and woven his experiences into a stage show. A spinoff aired in January on the celebrated radio magazine This American Life. It portrayed a nightmarish demimonde of crippling practices, toxic workplaces, subsistence pay, abject servitude, and aching desperation.

All of that was topped off by the sour irony that the workers owe their misery to their indispensable role in making some of the most beloved and imaginative devices on earth. And in turn, those devices owe their allure to the perception that they are vehicles to a giddy, sweeping emancipation of human potential.

I heard Daisey's broadcast, and it was stunning. It was also immensely popular, downloaded 888,000 times, more than any other in the show's 17-year history.

Taken together, the Daisey and Kony affairs made for an extraordinary moment, the insertion into U.S. popular awareness of two marginalized causes--exploitation of foreign tech workers to the benefit of U.S. companies and consumers, and the horrors of unending war in resource-rich Africa. And that awareness came thanks to media access for passionate amateurs that didn't exist a generation ago.

That was the good news. Then there was the problem of veracity.

"Kony 2012" was passionate but deeply flawed, a throwback to the White Man's Burden school of U.S. military interventionism. With its Up With People vibe of clean-limbed, dewy-faced Middle American congregants, it was derided by the Ugandans who were most familiar with the horrors it depicted, and deplored by experts steeped in the region for its simple-mindedness, blindspots, factual distortions, and failure to acknowledge the deep culpability of those it nominated as good guys.

As for Kony himself, analysts in Foreign Affairs reckon that his followers number no more than a few hundred and play a nasty, but minor role in the agony of a region where the civilian dead from 30 years of horrific civil strife of byzantine complexity are in the millions.

Intense criticism of the film apparently played a role in the mental breakdown of its telegenic creator Jason Russell, who remains hospitalized after he was picked up running naked through the streets of his San Diego neighborhood two weeks ago.

As to the report on Apple's Chinese suppliers, Daisey's allegations provoked serious fact-checking by other reporters, who turned up inaccuracies and fabrications. That led to a painful on-air confrontation with program creator Ira Glass, and led This American Life to disavow the story.

Daisey insists the liberties he took didn't alter the truth of his report. And he's not alone in arguing that his falsehoods--overstating the number of interviews, misrepresenting rumored injuries as ones he confirmed, claiming to have actually seen squalid worker dorms--do not mitigate the broader reality of labor abuse in the People's Republic.

In that respect, it's good that both he and Invisible Children have their say, and that this new media age enables such overlooked causes to plead for public concern. It would be better if they also understood that responsible advocacy rests on scrupulous accuracy. But regardless, we're all probably best served by a robust informational network that ensured that their word wasn't the last word.

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