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Kony Video Is Manipulative But Effective

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 21st, 2012 · On Second Thought
I finally watched the 30-minute online video, Kony 2012, calling for the capture or killing of African terrorist Joseph Kony this year. 

With an estimated 100 million views so far, it’s an interesting example of manipulation of social media and the mainstream media response to a propaganda and fundraising video going viral.

Kony 2012 — produced by the American nonprofit Invisible Children — is famous now for being famous. We’re talking more about the viral phenomenon than about the underlying facts of Kony’s bloody career. Kony 2012 is information without the context required to become knowledge.

In the world of instant communication and tweets with lifetimes shorter than a Cincinnati cicada, Kony 2012 is amazingly durable. 

My fear is that viewers will believe all they’re told and send money to Invisible Children.  

Kony heads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a particularly nasty bunch that began in northern Uganda but moves around the virtually ungoverned Central Africa as circumstances require or opportunities occur. As more than 20 years of news coverage have documented, he is a real terrorist: Rape, kidnap, murder and torture inspires terror among far more people than his tactics directly affect. 

The most telling scene in Kony 2012 involves Ugandan children gathered in a school, church or other building for protection while they slept. At home, they say, they could be kidnapped. Other Ugandans, however, say LRA does not operate as it once did in their nation. This video is dated and the old information is presented as current. That is a knowing misrepresentation in aid of their producers’ propaganda. 

Black Africa is rich in indigenous churches and prophets. LRA once was a messianic anti-government movement in Uganda. Frustrated by failure, LRA turned to kidnapping youngsters, turning them into child soldiers and sex slaves and marauding for the sake of survival.  

We’ve reported all of this for at least two decades. It’s like most post-colonial African miseries; they rarely command more than a passing headline inside newspapers or a mention on international TV newscasts.

Kony is so far from page 1 and nightly news that only now are 100 U.S. Special Forces going to Uganda to “advise” that tiny nation’s army pursuit of the LRA. 

Even that Pentagon decision — another American unit being sent to rebel-troubled black African countries — barely rated coverage by the news media. U.S., French, British and mercenary units have aided beleaguered African governments for decades. 

Invisible Children, however, takes credit for Obama’s decision to send in American ground forces; it’s the highlight of the firm’s embarrassingly self-congratulatory video.

What the news media haven’t explained is whether the Ugandans and Americans will pursue Kony across international borders that they, but not Kony, are expected to respect. Granted, the borders often are meaningless except on maps drawn by Europeans in the late 19th Century, but violations arouse even the least effective African governments. 

If there is an international effort to catch Kony in Central Africa, and the Americans advise those cooperating armies, will dreaded “mission creep” and the names of more unfamiliar nations enter the presidential campaign? Think Somalia and Black Hawk down in the 1990s.

As a propaganda piece, Kony 2012 is largely talk. The most bizarre images involve the Invisible Children narrator’s blond young son being manipulated into saying Kony is a bad man. If black Africans interpret that kid as a white knight riding to their salvation, then Kony 2012 is worse than I thought. After all, Ugandans forced him from their nation. 

That’s how Kony 2012 struck me: paternalistic, condescending and manipulative of viewers who share so many editors’ opinion of black Africans as ignorant, easily inflamed, ungovernable and almost beyond help. 

That misconception is easy to understand. The unsteady movement to elected governments from sometimes-violent independence struggles in all of Africa is one of the great stories of the past half-century. But it’s barely news: election campaign, disputed vote, new president, end of story. Bring home the anchors or reporters. 

Sunday morning, BBC World Service interviewed western and African reporters familiar with Kony and, more importantly, Ugandans angered by the video.

They were puzzled and offended by Kony 2012’s misleading suggestion that LRA was marauding in Uganda. 

That said, the tale of Kony 2012 is an instructive social media phenomena; go viral and the traditional news media will multiply your fame or infamy.

Curmudgeon notes:

• After reporting accused killer Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ youth spent in the Tristate, The Enquirer stumbled on his pre-army career as a stockbroker. Among national media, The Washington Post reported that Bales was accused of engaging in financial fraud while handling the retirement account of an elderly client in Carroll, Ohio. The Post said “an arbitrator later ordered Bales and the owner of the firm that employed him to pay $1.4 million — about half for compensation and half in punitive damages — for taking part in ‘fraud’ and ‘unauthorized trading,’ according to a ruling from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the independent disciplinary board for brokers and brokerage houses. A review of the investor’s account statements . . . shows that valuable stocks were sold off in favor of penny stocks as part of what the arbitrator called ‘churning’ by Bales to pump up commissions.The client, Gary Liebschner, a 74-year-old retired engineer for AT&T, said Sunday that he ‘never got paid a penny of the award’.”

• Monday’s special Impact Cincinnati show again demonstrated the strength of the tiny local news staff at WVXU-FM. Maryanne Zeleznik interviewed the reporters who did local leg work for the just-released national survey of state government integrity/corruption. Reporters described what earned Ohio a “solid D” and a C- for Indiana and Kentucky. I especially enjoyed the Kentucky reporter’s reticence to guess all of the treats that lobbyists once provided her state’s legislators. Some things just are fit for family radio, I guess.

• Did you notice weasel words in initial news stories about the career sergeant suspected of murdering 16 Afghan civilians recently? Maybe he cracked under the strain of a fourth deployment? There reportedly were tensions in his marriage? Possibly he was drinking alcohol before the killings? Could a noncombat traumatic brain injury in Iraq contributed to the rampage? And all of the unnamed sources? All of this before we knew his name. Former Lt. William Calley must be chuckling about this fuss over 16 deaths; he was involved in the killing of possibly 500 Vietnamese at My Lai in 1968. Now that was a massacre.

• Once the military named Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as the suspected killer of those 16 Afghan civilians, the Enquirer used online search tools to uncover and report his Tristate ties. What puzzled me was why the Enquirer didn’t explain the  Evendale police chief’s request that Bales’ local relatives’ address not be revealed.

• There may be a deeper news story in Bales’ rampage in that Afghan village. It’s the mainstream news media coverage of misconduct by civilian and military doctors back here in the ‘States. For years, small partisan journals complained that military psychiatrists and psychologists claimed that troubled returning combatants really had severe mental problems - such as borderline personality disorder - when they enlisted. Such diagnoses can reduce or deny veterans treatment and benefits for PTSD or other combat-related emotional problems. This saves money for the military and VA. Now, there is a quiet admission that the military has been unwilling or unable to diagnose traumatic brain injury among returning combatant (or severe, lasting emotional problems that should disqualify aspiring recruits...).

• Hundreds of returned combatants at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., have won re-examination of their rejected claims for PTSD because of flawed classifications that could involve professional malfeasance. News media coverage of systemic problems at Madigan Army Medical Center at Lewis-McChord forced the suspension of Medical Chief Col. Dallas Homan while the claims of false or incompetent diagnoses are investigated. It won’t help the hospital’s reputation that accused killer Bales was from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

• Given the drumbeat of news stories about rising numbers of suicides among the all-volunteer and badly stretched military,  maybe there is more relevance than stiff-lipped Imperial pride in Kipling’s poem, "The Young British Soldier": “When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains/And the women come out to cut up what remains/Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/ An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

• I’ve just finished a disturbing book, Roger Ford’s “Eden to Armageddon: World War I in the Middle East.” It’s shelved next to “A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan,” based on letters of a keen, unsentimental and rare survivor of the First Afghan War in the 1840s. Both are as current as today’s news and they remind me why the Greek word “hubris” usually describes how overweening pride and arrogance lands people in deep shit.

We know about the Western Front, the debacle at Gallipoli, the collapse of Russia and Austro-Hungarian Empires in World War I. I’ve long been fascinated by less famous theaters of the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy, especially in Germany’s African colonies and the Ottoman Empire. It’s the later that Roger Ford recounts.

What struck me was how so many of the battle sites then are newsworthy battle sites now: Sinai, Yemen, Persian Gulf emirates, Palestine (now Israel, Jordan, West Bank) Gaza, Faluja, Damascus, Baghdad, Armenia, Georgia, etc.
Philip Graham, then publisher of the Washington Post, is credited with the saying that “Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” but today’s news stories are the second and probably not the last rough draft in that region.

• Maybe reporters will demand that candidates and their surrogates explain how they will create $2.50/gallon gasoline, millions of jobs, more accomplished graduates, honest money lenders, etc. That would be refreshing.

But even if candidates spell out their plans, most Americans won’t know because it will be in print and most Americans don’t read a newspaper.  They rely on TV — broadcast or, increasingly, cable — for what they believe is news and it’s a rare TV show that risks accusations of bias to pursue an issue. So it’s left to print. Good luck.

As papers shed veteran journalists to save salaries, the generation that grew up reading dailies is becoming history. That’s not nostalgia. It’s the difference between papers, magazines and books and Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, video games, cell/smart phones, websites, aggregators, blogs, etc. Younger reporters are likeliest to have missed reading the kind of political news that we need. They literally don’t know what they’re missing.

• Journalists’ lack of history or context might explain the often-breathless news stories about talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Taliban were the government — such as it ever is in Afghanistan — when we invaded. We attacked them, albeit for protecting Al Qaeda after 9/11. Taliban will be there when we leave. When you want to end a war, you negotiate with the other side. Granted, it’s easier when you’ve pounded and bombed them into submission. You still have to talk.

We negotiated with the Germans to end WW2 and with the North Koreans and Chinese in Korea. And after arguments about the shape of the table for talks to end the Viet Nam war, we negotiated and today, we talk with former enemies about investment, tourism and trade.

• A new study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism says, “the search for a new revenue model to revive the newspaper industry is making only halting progress ... In general, the shift to replace losses in print ad revenue with new digital revenue is taking longer and proving more difficult than executives want and at the current rate most newspapers continue to contract with alarming speed. Cultural inertia is a major factor. Most papers are not putting significant effort into the new digital revenue categories that, while small now, are expected to provide most the growth in the future. To different degrees, executives predict newsrooms will continue to shrink, more papers will close and many surviving papers will deliver a print edition only a few days a week.” Revenue is always the issue. Pew said the papers brought in about $1 in digital advertising for every $11 in print.

• Here’s my question after public radio’s This American Life retracted a story about conditions in Chinese Foxconn factories making Apple products: What did they think they were getting when they took an excerpt from entertainer Mike Daisey’s monologue called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”?  Daisey has been performing this shtick since 2010. As the broadcast’s embarrassed host, Ira Glass tells it, “As best as we can tell, Mike's monologue in reality is a mix of things that actually happened when he visited China and things that he just heard about or researched, which he then pretends that he witnessed first hand. He pretends that he just stumbled upon an array of workers who typify all kinds of harsh things somebody might face in a factory that makes iPhones and iPads. And the most powerful and memorable moments in the story all seem to be fabricated ... we trusted his word. Although he's not a journalist, we made clear to him that anything he was going to say on our show would have to live up to journalistic standards. He had to be truthful. And he lied to us.”

Glass says Rob Schmitz, “who lives in Shanghai, heard the story and had questions about it, he had suspicions about it.”  Schmitz is China correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace. He checked it out and blew the whistle.

Schmitz told This American Life, “What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”

The New York Times quoted Daisey, saying in part, “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed  This American Life to air an excerpt from my monologue. This American Life is essentially a journalistic — not a theatrical — enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret.”

The AP now reports that Daisey has cut parts of his monologue that triggered the furor.

It’s surprising how rare this kind of snafu is; remember New York Times and Jayson Blair and Judith Miller; New Republic and Stephen Glass; Washington Post and Janet Cooke; Enquirer and Michael Gallagher; Detroit Free Press and Mitch Albom, Jack Kelley and USA Today? There is a common thread here: Editors forgot the maxim, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This American Life also suspended disbelief and didn’t check Daisey out.

• In my ethics classes, journalism students frequently have trouble separating trust from approval. Trust, as I teach it, involves the expectation that someone (or something) will act as expected. As Ira Glass and This American Life and others have learned to their public humiliation, trusted outside sources of news and images sometimes violate that confidence.  

• When her friend and colleague died in the apartment of a woman he paid for sex, an editor at Willamette Week knowingly misled their paper and said the guy died in his car. Poynter.org says the paper learned and published the truth and fired the editor, Kathleen Glanville.

• MWW has struck again. It’s the news media cliche and fascination with young, usually blonde, “missing white woman.” The latest is aspiring actress Satara Stratton from Chattagnooga. Keep posted.



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