Panel Presentation at Yale on February 24, 2010: My Media-Related Research

 We were asked to share our media-related research on 24 February 2010.  This was primarily for fellow graduate student.  I came across some three years later as I was cleaning up my office.  So why not post it?

My Media-Related Research

Let me start off somewhat biographically and then focus on the specifics of my most immediate project—the current working title of which is actually somewhat indebted to our previous meeting.  From Media Moments, I am now calling it Media Shifts for I am using four presidential elections looks at the shifts in audio visual media: the 1892/1896  and 2004/2008 elections.

My media related research really goes back to two things—my work in the film industry from 1972 to 1986, during which I made a couple of my own documentaries and worked on a variety of projects—initially medical films, an independent feature entitled Groove Tube and porn.  For today’s purposes the most pertinent was a two-year stint on Peter Davis’s Oscar winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974).  After that I returned here to finish my BA and then became a part time graduate student.  I was working primarily as a film editor and became interested in how film editing began.  What was the first cut?  Well the question turned out to be a naïve one that produced some interesting insights.  In the 1890s and before, post-production was in the hands of the exhibitor and it was only around the turn of the century that editorial control rapidly shifted to the production company so that production and post-production was centralized and a radical reorganization of the mode of production took place.  This formulation is pretty obviously indebted to a Marxist approach to work and I tended to still think of myself as a dialectical materialist.

Let me also note that early cinema was not a pure media form in that most exhibitions before 1903 combined lantern slides—still photographs or at least title slides—and film.  So early cinema effectively involved multiple media at various steps along the way, up to the actual process of exhibition.  Anyway, I was interested in writing or rewriting the history of the first 15 to 25 years of filmmaking and film exhibition, which resulted in a number of books.  The issue of what Andre Gaudreault calls Intermediality was increasingly important.

As this task reached a certain culmination I have increasingly returned to my original interest in documentary and have been working on a book entitled Truth and Documentary in the Age of George W. Bush.  This study covers the period from January 2000 to January 2009, during which the latest new media phenomenon was impossible to avoid.  One way I research and write is to find an occasion to work up a paper and then turn it into an article that might form the basis for a chapter in the book.  So for a conference organized by Francesco Casetti I wrote a paper that allowed me to focus on documentary—or rather its apparent absence—during the 2008 election.  It became a way to focus on and understand what was going on with YouTube among other internet phenomena.  It did this comparatively and became the basis for Media Shifts.

So some preliminary insights.  First, I am interested in the stereopticon as a kind of failed new media form in the 1860s—the stereopticon combined the magic lantern with photography.  The new media was the photographic glass slide, but in fact the lantern was, I would argue, one of the important platforms of the 19th century––not unlike the newspaper and so was always accessible to other media such as lithographs and hand-drawn cartoons.  In the course of my research I discovered that during the 1892 election, the Republican Party organized a number of speakers to give illustrated lectures—what we might call documentary programs–on the glories of the tariff and protectionism.  There was no reason why such efforts should all but cease in 1896—in fact, one might have predicted an increase—but after losing the 1892 election, the Republicans looked for other uses of the lantern or stereopticon and worked with the Biograph Company to present McKinley at Home in New York music halls—a key swing state—in the month prior to the election. McKinley at Home was a one shot film and was organized in a highly charged program that effectively presented McKinley as a figure of modernity and even “hope.”  It was the most high profile use of cinema during the 1896 election but not the only one.  William Randolph Hearst first used cinema on election night—and quite extensively.


Traditional media surveys like the PEW Research Center for People and the Press don’t even mention motion pictures or cinema as a source of campaign news in the 2000-2008 period but clearly they missed something.  Documentaries—in particular Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Errol Morris’s The Fog of War and Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The truth About the War in Iraq—were widely seen and influential during the 2004 election.  It might seem that their success should lead to further expansion long these lines in 2008 but this did not happen—perhaps because Kerry lost the election.  Rather, much of this kind of activity shifted to the internet. Greenwald produced numerous short, issue-oriented pieces on his Brave New Films channel on YouTube, and there were many other similar examples.  These included Obama’s YouTube campaign site which was much more developed than Hilary Clinton’s or John McCain’s.  I am also very interested in so-called user generated content and stumbled across the site of a New Yorker named Russ, who had been posting short videos of his favorite drag queen performer, Kiki.  Then he suddenly discovered Obama and started to produce some very interesting pro-Obama campaign films.  Fortunately I downloaded a lot of these since they were subsequently removed from YouTube—and his site or channel finally shut down.


In the 2004-2008 period we are not only dealing with shifting media but shifting platforms even as there remains a great deal of fluidity.  There is a general though hardly universal move from film shown theatrically and videos/dvds seen on television to the use of computers as platforms using video streaming.  But perhaps as interesting or important as any of the above, I became fascinated by the 1000 plus Obama songs—as varied as hit videos such as Got a Crush On Obama  with the Obama Girl and Will I Am’s Yes We Can to a Youtube video of a young Swedish woman from Finland, living in England, performing into her amateur video camera in the early hours of some morning with a song celebrating Obama –and viewed slightly more than 100 times.  It was these music videos that embodied Obama’s message of Hope, which may have won him the campaign—not just the general election but perhaps even more the Democratic primary, which were so close.

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