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Watching the Watchdog: Is Kony 2012 for Real -- or Brilliant Propaganda?

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Veteran TV newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular blog to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast/Internet journalism in Canada and internationally. Today he examines Kony 2012.

Date: Friday March 9, 2012

Anchor: Jason Russell

The YouTube documentary Kony 2012 has become the mother of all virals. More than 76-million viewers over only five days. 1,311,175 likes, 87,395 dislikes. Now that's a hit!

It's made by the American not-for-profit group Invisible Children about its own eight-year campaign to make Joseph Kony -- murderous leader of a gang of East African rebels, The Lord's Resistance Army -- so internationally notorious that someone, anyone, will capture or kill him.

There's lots of justification. The LRA has slaughtered some 30,000 people in the region over the past few years. It kidnaps and drugs young boys to join its fighting ranks and girls to serve as sex slaves.

Canadian broadcasters have all covered the story. Many have interviewed experts, demanding to know why the monster from Uganda is still out there in the bush, either in the Congo or the Central African Republic, and why he hasn't been captured.

Negative criticism of the film is that, it's patronizing, its finances are a bit fishy, and anyway, not-for-profits shouldn't do political propaganda.

For this column, though, I'm ignoring the rights or wrongs of Kony 2012 and the campaign to catch him so I can concentrate on the professional quality of the documentary itself.

My qualifications to do this: Over the years I've made some 20 TV and radio documentaries for four networks. And been an awards judge for the international public TV conference INPUT, the American Emmies, the Canadian Geminis, and Innoversity Creative Summit.

Also, I spent three years covering two wars as United Press International correspondent in Congo, so know something of the area where Kony lurks and murders.

Here goes:

Overall -- Kony 2012 is a brilliant, unashamedly emotional and partisan polemic. Like any strong documentary, it's cleverly manipulative. And like any strong documentary it sticks to its focus, leaves out anything that's too boring or just doesn't fit the story.

Narrator -- Jason Russell knows exactly how to communicate. He doesn't just read his script like so many narrators. Instead, because he understands the power of thinking aloud using his natural voice, he talks directly to one viewer at a time. He doesn't announce, he shares. He's urgent, involved, obviously troubled, hypnotically effective.

Storytelling -- The documentary runs chronologically which is always the best way to tell a story because, in case you haven't noticed, life itself is chronological.

It starts with context: Power to the people.

Foreshadows powerfully: "As a dad, I want (my son Gavin) to grow up in a better world than I did."

Dramatic development is strong: Nobody knows or cares about Kony. That must change and you, the people out there, must change it.

Builds to a climax: Hundreds of thousands of supporters, particularly young people, politicians and celebrities like George Clooney are now on side and we're going to change the world. "This is the dream -- Kony arrested for all the world to see and the abducted children returned home."

Finally, a denouement that calls for even more international support and, of course, money to keep fighting the good fight.

Along the way, we're constantly reminded of the film's blatant focus -- arrest the Kony monster, save the children. No subtlety here. Russell's own cute four-year-old son Gavin co-stars with his father. The kid doesn't advance the story himself, he's simply a powerful device to pull at every heartstring in every viewer.

Writing -- Taught, tight script using short, simple, active words in short, simple, active sentences.

Editing and Sound -- Fast, urgent, emotional, highly effective. Excellent use of pauses and music to let us consider what's just been said and prepare for what's to come.

Incidental Fact -- A picture of our own intrepid Stephen Harper appears briefly in the list of "12 policy makers who could change the game regarding Kony." I wonder if the P.M. knows. If so, does he plan to become a hero by sending the Van Doos off to catch Kony?

Verdict -- It's not really true, as claimed, that the rest of the world doesn't know about Kony. There have been news stories about him over the years and, since 2006, Kony has topped the International Criminal Court's list of war criminals wanted for crimes against humanity. Last year U.S. President Barack Obama sent 100 military "advisers" to help track him down.

Some African critics have slammed the film as "just another neo-colonial campaign portraying Africans as powerless, unable to help themselves." There's validity in the charge. Centuries of slavery followed by European colonialism so damaged Africa and its cultures, particularly in Congo, that you can't help questioning the motives of yet another white group setting out to find forgiveness by "saving Africa."

Then there's the statement: "Arresting Joseph Kony will prove that the world we live in has new rules."

And: "If we succeed, we change the course of human history."

They both sound like wretched hyperbole. Yet I suspect there's some truth hidden in them.

Not because catching Kony will necessarily do either of those things, but because this YouTube/FaceBook documentary has already been so successful in proving that the crowd power of social media has incredible, unknowable potential.

Politicians and the 1 per cent elite should be afraid. Very afraid.

Finally, if I were on an awards panel judging Kony 2012 when it first came out, I would likely have found no substantive reason not to consider it. However, I would have labeled it brilliantly done but simplistic and a bit patronizing.

Whatever the truth about the film, Michael Moore and even, perhaps, Leni Riefenstahl, now have a strong competitor when it comes to powerful visual propaganda.