The Jason Russell Tragedy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 16 2012 7:45 PM

The Jason Russell Tragedy

Eighteen months ago, I was up early in the Ted Stevens International Airport, checking news, looking for something to write in a stint keeping up Andrew Sullivan's blog. "American Killed in Kenya Bombing" -- this was a story that would normally go past my radar. Hang on: The American killed was Nate Henn. I grew up with that guy. He'd been working for a charity called "Invisible Children," which aimed to raise Awareness (oh, how I wince at "Awareness") of child soldiers in Africa, and to rehab ex-soldiers. I plunked $100 in the charity's online coffers right away.

This is why I find this so disturbing.

Jason Russell, the marquee-handsome and new-media-brilliant founder of the charity, has more or less shredded its reputation in a matter of weeks. First came the bizarre, self-congratulatory "Kony 2012" campaign. Now comes this meltdown, which the charity explains away as a reaction to "exhaustion." We can buy that: Using your charity's influence to publish a movie about you and your quest, and getting guffawed off the public stage, must be stressful. Especially when you'd never really misstepped like this before. This 2010 interview in Relevant lays out the Russell strategy when it was working: Viral media, celebrity endorsements. "It’s in my DNA, in my personality tests; I do not like rules," he said. "I don’t believe that anything actually riveting in the world ever changes when you play by the rules. It honestly makes me want to throw up." It worked for a while; it's clearly never going to work again. It wouldn't be so troubling if people hadn't died for this organization.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.