Now This News, the video site backed by Ken Lerer, is taking the Truth Booth to next week's Obama-Romney debate
When debate watchers tune in next Tuesday to see Mitt Romney square off against Barack Obama, they may catch a glimpse of a giant, inflatable bouncy castle wedged between the network television trucks.
Don't be alarmed: it's not a hallucination.
It's called the Truth Booth, and it's a 25-foot tall, 400-pound art installation in the shape of a thought bubble that its creators claim will elicit more genuine responses to the evening's political wrangling then will be found in the various spin-rooms that invariably crop up around a national debate.
It also represents an unorthodox partnership between the worlds of art and news. In this case, the booth was designed by an art group called the Cause Collective, but is being deployed by Now This News, the video news service backed by Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer.
"This is not a protest. This is not a political statement," Ed O’Keefe, editor-in-chief of Now This News, told TheWrap. "This is truly about finding a new and unique way of gathering peoples' opinions and getting people to think about the importance of truth. We're trying to see who you believe in a clever way. Do you believe Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?"
To find out, the throngs outside the Hofstra University building where the debate is slated to take place will be asked to enter the Truth Booth and prompted to give their candid reflections on the political contest. Their video-taped responses will run two minutes in length. The only stipulation is that those who participate begin their statement with the words "The truth is." O'Keefe hopes that he will be able to collect impressions not just from audience members, but also workers on the Romney and Obama campaigns and members of the media.
As a helpful reminder to what the artists and reporters are hoping to achieve, the word "truth" is emblazoned in bold letters along the booth's sides.
"It's a little bit art and a little bit politics," O'Keefe said. "It's a totally different idea and that's why we love it. It's much more effective than a typical 'man on the street' interview,' where we just send someone down to Hofstra and stick a microphone in peoples' faces."
O'Keefe said the best of the videos will be distributed over social media platforms and on BuzzFeed, the political website Now This News is partnering with to distribute its reports.
Though O'Keefe says it's not a piece of political theater, the Cause Collective believes they are making an artistic statement about political rhetoric by erecting the booth.
"So many of our political leaders have their own versions of the truth and that can create certain complications for us," Hank Willis Thomas, one of the creators of the Truth Booth, said. "We wanted to enourage people to get invovled in public discourse, because we feel candidates aren't telling the whole truth."
The Truth Booth has already been taken for a test drive in Ireland, where it was erected in more than a dozen cities and towns in 2011, and at Look3, a photography festival held in Charlottesville, Va. last June.
That's where O'Keefe came across the Cause Collective's work. When he tjoined Lerer's start-up last summer from ABC News, he came up with the idea of collaborating with the group on a story surrounding the presidential election.
Getting the inflatable booth up north required borrowing a producer's station wagon and giving it a trial run on the front lawn of another team member's house in Morristown, N.J. It also necessitated getting permission from the powers that be at Hofstra.
"It was difficult to explain what we were talking about and not sound totally crazy," O'Keefe admits. "It's a hard sell to say we want to have a giant inflatable structure with the word 'truth' on it mere yards from the debate site, but to their credit, Hofstra embraced the idea."
Although Thomas is more concerned with art than journalism, he believes that the Truth Booth represents a more democratic approach to news-gathering.
"We're trying to create a more equal playing field," he said. "Everyone has something valuable to say. Some of it is funny, some of it's thoughtful, some of it's esoteric, but it's all meaningful."
Now This News is still in beta mode, but it is expanding rapidly. Its staff of more than 20 people includes such old media veterans as Eason Jordan, former CNN chief news executive, who will be the company's general manager, and Katharine Zaleski, former Washington Post executive director of digital news , who will serve as managing editor. It plans to have an app live in the next few weeks, O'Keefe said.
The company also hopes to continue collaborating with the Cause Collective. O'Keefe envisions using the Truth Booth to gather reactions on election day and at the next presidential inauguration.
"There's a cynicism in society right now and a doubt about the people in power whether its the government or journalism or other institutions," O'Keefe said. "This is a natural and non-traditional way for us to break down those walls and get to the truth of an issue."