I am embarrassed to admit it: before my daughter posted the KONY 2012 documentary to her Facebook page two weeks ago, I had no idea who Joseph Kony was.
We monitor our kids' social graphs pretty closely, so when our 13-year-old posted the link to the documentary on her wall, my wife asked me "what the hell is that?" and told me to investigate. By then, of course, KONY 2012 had become a well-known meme to teenagers worldwide and Jason Russell had become a viral rock star -- almost as "web famous" as the kid who got his finger bitten by Charlie.
Watching the half-hour film, I was struck by a number of things. First, I could not fathom what would make anyone do such terrible things to anyone, let alone children. Second, the story seemed oddly familiar -- in fact, this is not a new story, Kony has been at this for some thirty years. Last, I felt manipulated. KONY 2012 does what the best film and TV should do -- it moves you. The show is incredibly slick, the storytelling exceptionally well-crafted and the call to action incredibly, well, commercial.
As I did research, I discovered criticism of the organization behind the campaign, Invisible Children -- and a lot of it. There were critiques of their use of donated funds, their sale of KONY merchandise, their gross oversimplification of a complex and thorny issue, even the self-aggrandizing way the founders use their own images (with guns) to promote the campaign to stop and arrest Joseph Kony. I looked into their finances -- while this raised many questions about how their donated funds are actually spent, the books themselves were hardly 'sketchy.' I looked into their history -- while the founders do seem to have a proclivity for self-promotion, they also have a long track record of activism on this very subject. I looked into the issue -- yes, in demonizing KONY and his LRA, Invisible Children skips over many complications that make his arrest less simple than they profess and the actions of some governments less pure; but this does not eliminate the fact that this is a bad guy, who does incredibly bad things and that he should be stopped.
However, later that night, as I sat and watched Jason Russell on no fewer than four national TV news interviews, one thing became obvious: this guy was really enjoying this. That Russell himself is at the center of this story was a choice -- his choice. It's Russell's voice and image all over the KONY 2012 film. It's his face all over the website. It's his name and likeness in the press. It's his FIVE-YEAR-OLD son in the film -- sharing the screen with a war criminal (it was this that most bothered a good friend of mine, who made the point that he endangered the boy by including him in the piece). Russell obviously wanted to be someone -- very badly. His talents as a filmmaker and as a promoter helped make that happen.
Many documentarians put themselves in their films -- even films with a message. Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, Kirby Dick and Bill Maher have all made activist films, in which they are the main character. And, each has even made money doing so. Personally, I prefer the Alex Gibney, Davis Guggenheim, Steve James approach of stepping out of the spotlight and allowing the film to speak for itself. However, I do not begrudge a filmmaker's choice of putting themselves in the spotlight to make a point.
The difference with Moore, Spurlock and Maher, however, is that they were ready and willing to face the inevitable backlash they received. Each defended himself ably and each rose above the fray to continue to further his message. When their motivations or methods were questioned, they answered their critics head on. Agree with them or not, they stood their ground with both passion and nerve. When the spotlight they sought shone on them, they were prepared for both the best and the worst of it.
Jason Russell, it seems, was not.
Media is a pulpit. The web offers talented promoters like Russell a powerful platform. Cable news then gave him a megaphone. However, when you cast yourself as the star of your own film; when you put yourself on that pulpit and project yourself as the leader of a movement -- when you shine the spotlight on yourself and your child -- you set yourself up not just as a film director, but as up as a role model. My daughter -- and millions of kids across the world -- believed in the cause, because they believed in Jason Russell and his message. This weekend, her belief -- not just in this cause, but in people themselves -- was shaken. In response, she had no choice but to question what Russell said and what she, in turn, believed as a result.
Not everyone on the web or TV is or should be a role model. But if you cast yourself as a role model, you need to be prepared to act as one -- not just when things are going well, but also when they go badly. When you use the power of the media to put yourself in the spotlight, you need to be prepared for the heat such attention brings. None of us is perfect or beyond reproach, but if you purposefully put yourself and your family at the heart of a cause in which you ask others to believe, then you need to be ready to defend yourself and that cause when others try and knock it down. No one asked Jason Russell to get in front of the camera. That was his choice. In casting himself as a role model, Russell asked kids around the world to believe -- not just in his cause, but in him.
Mr. Russell asked for the spotlight. He demanded attention. But when his video went crazy viral and people began to question the motives and techniques employed by Invisible Children, he was not ready when the media he used so well turned on him. Then, when the pressure broke him down, Russell and his protectors recast him in a new role -- victim. It is not one he plays nearly as well.
I don't begrudge Russell his 15 minutes of fame. And I am not here to take him or Invisible Children to task for how they run their organization, how they raise funds or for their somewhat stunning naiveté. I don't question their intentions or their transparency. At worst, I think they are in a bit over their heads; at best, I truly believe they have brought attention to an important crisis and motivated many people to take action. I don't even blame Russell for believing that he was as important as the message itself.
However, when you break the trust of our young people, you give them cause to become cynical and jaded. There are enough reasons in the world to lose one's faith, without a web-based Pied Piper making up one more. Something like this risks making our children believe -- in everything -- just a little less. And that is not something any of us should excuse or forgive so easily.
Follow Evan Shapiro on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eshap