What is truth?: The controversies around Kony2012 and This American Life

Like just about everyone else with an internet connection, I am aware of both the video and the “controversy” surrounding the video Kony2012. I first saw it posted on a friend’s wall with the comment that her 12-year old son had made HER aware of it.

That is how it started: young people sharing it with other young people until it became one of the most viral videos of all time.

Before I even watched the video, however, I felt a combination of emotions because of what my immediate reaction was to learning of its very existence. My very first thought was, “Who is going to try and poke holes in this video?”

We live in a “Prove it!” age where seemingly everything can be faked and there are competing industries of content creators and content disprovers. I’m not sure what makes me more sad: that our willingness to believe what we see has been decimated by those who would prey on our trusting nature, or that there are so many out there who prey on our trusting nature.

Before I was even finished writing this blog post, another “truth” controversy was unearthed, this time by the producers at American Public Media’s This American Life. A recent episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”  was their most downloaded episode ever.  Then it was revealed that the actor had taken a few liberties with the facts, throwing big parts of the story into question.

What these two episodes share is the now common tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. Both the Kony video and the “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” get both stories mostly right, but the liberties taken with some details immediately call into question the whole narrative.

Or do they?

There was a time when it meant something to be a journalist, and there are still legions of ink-stained wretches (can you still say that in a digital age?) who do their damnedest to get it right. But neither Jason Russell nor Mike Daisey are journalists, they’re storytellers. My question is: Can simplifying complicated stories in the service of a larger goal ever be excused? Much of the criticism leveled against both the Kony video and Daisey’s “This American Life” interview had more to do with what screenwriters or authors might term creating a “composite” character. Kony2012 has been accused of, among other things, being oversimplified. Not false, mind you, just oversimplified. Well, as someone once said, complexity is complicated.

Daisey, for his part, recounts an incident where some Chinese Foxconn employees were poisoned due to exposure to a chemical but, in his account, he claimed it happened in one factory in China when it, in fact, happened in a different one. I’m just not sure how this blows up his whole story. With more than a little indignation, Bob Garfield noted in his essay on On the Media, “…facts in and of themselves do not constitute truth. They can be selected and arranged any which way, intentionally or unintentionally, to distort truth and turn it upside down. That is precisely how political consultants earn a living: assembling nominal facts to tell big, fat lies.”

Fair enough, but a lot of this seems like hair splitting to me. No one can deny that Kony is an evil guy. No one can deny that Apple, and every other electronics manufacturer on planet Earth, exploit lax Chinese labor laws and low prices in order to give us the shiny gadgets we all want. Now, because of Daisey and others, they are trying to clean up their act, the way Nike did 15 years ago. And the whole world knows about Joseph Kony.

But it still gnaws at me, this idea of getting things MOSTLY right in the service of another goal. It’s OK as long as you agree with that larger goal, right? But what if you don’t? And where are the ethics?

Nicholas Kristof wrote an OpEd in the New York Times on March 15. Since getting behind the Times’ paywall is becoming less and less of a trivial matter, here is the takeaway:  Kristof, who has probably seen more of mankind’s atrocities than any living journalist, delivered a point-by-point rebuttal to the early Kony backlash.

“It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely.

I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of Unicef who was President Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east.

In 1999, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a brief visit to war-ravaged Sierra Leone and was photographed with a 3-year-old girl whose right arm had been chopped off. The photograph, widely circulated, helped galvanize outside powers to crush the militias. Sierra Leone is now at peace, and that girl is studying in the United States.

I asked Albright, who later led a task force on preventing genocide, what she thinks of the Kony video.

“Shining a light makes a lot of difference,” she said, adding that Kony’s prospects are probably less good now than before the video came out.

The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified?

I don’t know if this initiative will make a difference. But if I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”