BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. A week ago, Kony 2012, a half-hour video about the fugitive Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, was viewed roughly 80 million times in five days, breaking the YouTube record set by Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
It was produced by the charity Indivisible Children, and made by cofounder and filmmaker Jason Russell, after a chance meeting with one of Kony’s child soldiers who saw his brother’s throat cut for trying to escape.
[KONY 2012 CLIP]:
JASON RUSSELL: He told me more about his brother and what he would say to him if he were still alive.
JACOB: I love you, but now I miss you… We are not going to meet but we, we may meet in heaven, you see?… Because if I saw my brother once again, I don’t…” [CRYING][MUSIC]
JASON RUSSELL: Everything in my heart told me to do something. And so, I made him a promise.
JASON RUSSELL [TO JACOB]: We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
JASON RUSSELL: Do you hear my words?
JASON RUSSELL: We are. We’re going to stop them. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The film immediately sparked a backlash from critics who challenged everything from Invisible Children’s governance to its tactics, to its portrayal of a complex situation, one that’s greatly changed in the years it took to produce the film. The charity quickly opened its books and repeatedly explained its intention, to create a tipping point for action.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has spent much of his life exposing human rights abuses and pondering what inspires empathy and action. He’s seen how putting the focus on a single figure works.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: For example, when the anti-apartheid movement was trying to figure out how to galvanize the public, for a long time they had an effort to free South African political prisoners. And it got nowhere. And then they changed the slogan to “Free Mandela.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: And that took off. And likewise, I think the converse is what we’re seeing right now. This Invisible Children video, it’s a reminder that there really is an appetite out there, if we can figure out how to target it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what did they figure out?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Well, one thing that we know intellectually is that it helps to have a bridge character, that Americans don’t just want to focus on somebody abroad. And if there is an American who makes the journey to some distant place or if that person abroad has relatives here or there’s some link, then people are more likely to watch a video or read about it. And they did that with the filmmaker himself, and his son and their interest in something a long way away. And if they’re interested, then maybe you should be too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know Hollywood has taken a lot of hits when dealing with the issue of civil rights in America or humanitarian subjects abroad and they put an attractive, generally white person, in the pivotal role. This is precisely what gets up some of the critics of Invisible Children’s nose, the fact that the Ugandans aren’t really telling their own story.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: If we had people from Uganda, Central African Republic and Congo telling the story without a bridge character, there would be less impact. If you have an American bridge character, it has more impact. And there’s a real tradeoff there. It’s a little bit less authentic and there’s a tradeoff between complexity and simplification.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To what do you attribute the backlash, especially by charities and NGOs, non-governmental organizations in the area, that would presumably want the same outcome, Kony behind bars?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Nobody fights more viciously than humanitarians, on whatever issue, whether it’s micro-finance or AIDS strategies, and it tends to be targeted often at those who are perceived as more aggressive in marketing, in ways that make things less complicated. And that’s exactly what Invisible Children has done. It’s been a – just a mind-boggling success in marketing, with a, a very simple narrative. And so, I think it hits a lot of those buttons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The backlash has involved not just marketing and oversimplification but the policies promoted by the film, the presentation of the struggle itself.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The video should have made more clear that the problem used to be in Northern Uganda but that now the problem is Central African Republican, Congo and, to some extent, South Sudan. You know, beyond that, I think the, the critics have been profoundly unfair, and I see three people who have devoted nine years of their lives to try to make a difference a long way from home, and it’s unclear whether they will make that difference, but I think they’re trying in reasonable ways. And I think that is something to be emulated, not scorned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re familiar with the Nigerian writer Teju Cole, right?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He’s been in the forefront of critics who feel that this whole approach is deeply condescending. He even singled out you in one Tweet. He said, “From Sachs, to Kristof, to Invisible Children, to TED, the fastest growth industry in the U.S. is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, I think there’s been a real discomfort and backlash among middle class educated Africans, Ugandans, in particular, in this case but people more broadly, about having Africa, as they see it, defined by a warlord who does particularly brutal things and about the perception that Americans are going to ride in on a white horse and resolve it.
To me though it seems even more uncomfortable to think that we, as white Americans, should not intervene in a humanitarian disaster because victims are of a different skin color.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you believe that the positive attention that the film has gotten is part of the White Savior Industrial Complex?
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: There’s no doubt that it is kind of cool for young Americans to worry about problems halfway around the world and sometimes to worry more about problems in Malawi than in Newark.
On the other hand, I think it is really commendable that a lot of young Americans find that their empathy doesn’t stop at the border, and I don’t think they should apologize for the fact that they have compassion for families who are being killed and raped and mutilated in the Central African Republic. And just as it was a mistake for us not to intervene early in Bosnia, for example, or in Rwanda, because the issues were seen as complex and distant and remote, I think it’s a mistake to turn aside from villagers in Central African Republic and Congo who, I might say, are desperate for help from anybody who can possibly provide it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof.