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New Left Media: US documentary unit chats to Now Then

New Left Media is an Ohio-based documentary unit consisting of journalism students Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll. While producing documentaries to submit through traditional formats at documentary festivals, they are best known for their vox-pop shorts with rank and file Tea Party activists which sprung up in 2009. Since then they have moved towards more traditional documentary formats, tackling subjects like the environment and women's health, and producing four shorts for the gay marriage advocacy group The Four. Whilst it's easy to look at their Tea Party work as just another Louis Theroux-like interrogation, New Left Media say the intention of their work is to delve into the crowd to see what they believe and why. This is something they feel that mainstream media of all persuasions is failing to bring to the surface. In an age when traditional media models are breaking down, reliable, information-driven news is more necessary than ever. I spoke to Whiteside about their upcoming work, gay marriage campaigns and the American news media. How did NLM come about? It was actually a bit of a fluke. Erik and I were film students, and this was at the early stages of the debate over what is colloquially called ‘Obamacare’. So the scene on the ground here was one of lots of news coverage of the opposition and of legislators going back-and-forth trying to come up with a bill. It was all very unclear. We wanted to get involved as activists, not so much as journalists, so we went out to one of the first large Tea Party rallies, which was the 12th September 2009 Washington DC party march. It wasn’t like we thought this was gonna be a large internet thing. While we were at college it went viral with 1.5 million views – a total fluke – and was on the front page of Reddit among other things. We thought, we’re doing something right, so we might as well try and do something like it again. Why did you want to go into the crowd and interview these activists? My answer to that is that I never wanted to do it. I mean it was simply because we had a viral video with that kind of content that we repeated the formula. Since that first video we’ve tried to apply a certain philosophy to our work. People watch our videos and think we’re trying to corner people and ask loaded questions, but that’s actually not what we do. Most of the views that you hear in our videos are the ones you would find if you did public polling of Tea Party activists and self-identified conservatives. So it’s really not hard to get what we’re getting. Our interest is more in trying to get people to walk through the logic, step backwards and see how it does or doesn’t make sense. Do you think the Tea Party was a media creation or just a party of American democracy? I think democracy in America has changed. It’s still got all the pitfalls of democracy so it’s still pretty messy, but what has changed is that we’re not in an era of pamphlets, where political paranoia festers absent of large media. Today we can hear large groups of mindsets in the media, so I think that’s a fundamental difference. It’s no longer ignorance by way of not having access to information; it’s more wilfully curetting of information so as to avoid large parts of both political and scientifically reality. In the 2012 Election it seemed as though different outlets were offering completely different news. Since the election, George Bush’s former speechwriter David Frum has talked of a “conservative entertainment complex” poisoning the media of America. Did you get a sense of this when talking to Mitt Romney’s supporters in Ohio before the election? The reason they lost is the same reason they thought they were gonna win, and David Frum is right when he says, “We used to think as the Republican Party that we controlled Fox News, but we’re finding out that Fox News controls us”. You’ve got a network that is so crafted in their narrative, and it’s not that unwise in terms of television and radio ratings. There’s a reason Fox does better. It’s really exciting to tune in and find out how your imposer president is trying again to dismantle a part of your democracy – much more exciting than tuning in and having to actually engage in complex realities. It’s always more effective to scare your viewers back, and Fox News has been so successful in this regard. I had a neighbour growing up with a Fox News emblem burnt into their television screen, and you know if it’s burnt into their television screen it’s burnt into their minds. 2012 was also a big year for gay marriage in America. You created four documentary shorts following same-sex families in the four states voting on the issue. How did you get into making this series? We were looking to make docs about the four states with gay marriage initiatives – something we'd done with Maine two years earlier, but released after the election – and through mutual contacts found out about The Four, an organization working to produce content for the web in all four states. It was a natural fit. Given that the UK debate over gay marriage is proving to be quite polarising, do you think a public referendum was good for the debate in the US? It’s very complicated. Because it’s a state by state system, it creates this bizarre patchwork map in our country, where in many of the states it’s illegal to get married or where it’s not but your marriage from another state is recognised. As this sets out to be reviewed by the Supreme Court one of the main considerations they’re gonna have to make is does it makes sense that a gay couple could marry in Maryland and then move to Texas, where it would be illegal for them to get divorced as the state wouldn’t recognise their marriage in the first place? Gay marriage was put on the ballot in states for many years precisely for the purpose of getting people out for Republican issues, knowing people would definitely vote against gays. And so you see our strategy for many years was basically a court strategy, then eventually it was a sympathetic legislature strategy, and apparently for the first time we have an incumbent president who will no longer provide an umbrella excuse for a whole party, which is quite helpful. So for the first time I think it is a good strategy in our favour and that’s why the opposition is being so quiet about the whole thing. I remember when Obama finally declared himself in favour of gay marriage last year, and Mitt Romney’s response was simply “My opinion is the same it was when I was a governor”. Yeah, and the Republican Party is in a difficult place because all the states which comprise the Republican primary – the southern and rationally Republican states, the ones that have particular power within the Republican Party – are never going to vote for gay marriage anytime soon. Even though a lot of their cities like Atlanta have strong gay communities, they’re still outnumbered by their rural areas. This puts a Republican candidate in a difficult place because to win the primary they basically have to say they’re opposed to gay marriage, and when it becomes time to win the swing states, in those states gay marriage is not viewed so negatively. In the primary they have to be against gay marriage and they just have to shut up about it. It’s a funny position. Where do you intend to go with New Left Media in 2013. Will you continue to publish your work online for free or would you like to produce work on a more commercial basis? It depends on the film. Some films we don't want to publish online. Not for any financial reason, but because we find the venue distracting. Certain films shouldn't be watched in a tiny box surrounded by competing screen information and heard through shit laptop speakers. Films for the web have to be punchier to break through the clutter. As for New Left Media, over the next year we’re going to continue in the same fashion we have over the last few years. I am personally quite tired of doing roaming vox-pop interviews with conservative activists. I think we’ve made our point there. As for the Romney interviews, we really didn’t plan those either but you do crazy things in an election for your side. At the moment we’re working on our first feature length film, the content of which I’m going to be coy about. We're definitely interested in producing films for a theatrical presentation, however the financing works, and that's something we're working on now. )

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