Bring back some good or bad memories


June 29, 2024

Marion Stokes, the Woman Who Began Taping Whatever Was on Television in 1979 and Didn’t Stop Until Her Death in 2012

Marion Stokes was secretly recording television twenty-four hours a day for thirty years. It started on November 4, 1979 with the Iranian Hostage Crisis at the dawn of the twenty-four hour news cycle. It ended on December 14, 2012 while the Sandy Hook massacre played on television as Marion passed away. In between, Marion recorded on 70,000 VHS tapes, capturing revolutions, lies, wars, triumphs, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows, and commercials that tell us who we were, and show how television shaped the world of today.

The collection was the life’s work of Marion Stokes, an activist and television producer who had died almost a year to the day earlier, at 83. “She was obsessed with the mediation of media,” said her son, Michael Metelits. His mother wanted to track how news stories changed as they broke, identify information dropped or suppressed, look at how narratives were massaged and see what dramatic subplots and characters emerged as the news unfolded each day. Stokes understood that the raw material of news was shaped by those who produced it, and she wanted to preserve examples for others to study. She intuited the future direction of television news, forecasting the operation of ever more sophisticated psychological mechanisms to sow partisanship and distort the truth. Her work refuted Dr Martin Luther King’s optimistic belief that the spread of television news, and the horrifying images of human suffering it could bring into every home, would help end racism and division. Whilst the celebrated media theorists of her day produced books and papers hypothesizing the potential effects of television on the individual and society, Stokes went about gathering hard evidence from her Philadelphia apartment.

This extraordinary endeavor, and the turbulent life that drove it, is the subject of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019), the latest documentary by New York-based filmmaker Matt Wolf. Using interviews with Stokes’s family and associates, a dash of dramatic reconstruction and a tiny sampling of the colossal archive (across a 90-minute movie, the clips amount to barely a third of one standard three-hour VHS tape, let alone 70,000 of them), Wolf has assembled a film that is nuanced, moving and topical. Or rather, Recorder is a film that is moving precisely because of its topicality.

Marion Stokes pictured in a scene from Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a new documentary by Matt Wolf.

Stokes’s knowledge of media theory was ahead of its time, as was her mission to preserve that which the television stations themselves would dispose of. She understood that technology would play an increasingly central role in our lives, and assembled a huge collection of Apple computers, buying shares in the company as early as 1984, the year the Macintosh was launched. Yet, in her last decades, she lived with her second husband, John, as a recluse, in isolation from their children. She became fiercely secretive about her project, fearing judgement or mockery for what she was doing as a black woman, worried she would be written off as a crank. What she knew of the world also cut her off from it.

Stokes was raised an orphan in Philadelphia, shunted from one troubled home to another. Foreshadowing her later work, she trained as a librarian, and in the early 1960s, with her marriage to communist activist Melvin Metelits, became involved in left-wing politics. A few years after the birth of their son Michael, the marriage dissolved. The FBI kept a file on her, and she was fired from her library position. In the late 1960s, Stokes joined Input, a current affairs discussion show run by a local CBS affiliate station in Philadelphia, first as a contributor, then as a producer. Input aimed to create an “open community” of trust, “expressed within a context of respect.” (A concept alien in today’s bilious, childish public forums.) It featured a range of contributors from across the political spectrum. Wolf makes deft use of clips from the show, using them to demonstrate Stokes’s keen intellect, tenacious style of debate, and her reluctance to suffer fools. It was on this show that she would meet her second husband, whose personal wealth enabled a radical change of economic circumstances for Stokes. She hired a chauffeur, a secretary, and a nurse, all of whom would become close confidants.

Marion Stokes as a young woman.

The taping project began on November 4, 1979 – the day that news of the Iran hostage crisis broke, and eight months before the birth of 24-hour rolling news with the launch of CNN in June 1980. The work grew from one to multiple channels, covering both local news outlets and 24-hour feeds including ABC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox and MSNBC. Wolf uses clips of armed conflicts, political scandals, terrorist attacks, assassination attempts and sporting triumphs to pull the story through the decades, an astonishing illustration of the depths of Stokes’s archive. She shows us the Iran-Contra affair (1985–87), the police bombing of the MOVE commune in Philadelphia (1985), the Gulf War (1990–91), Magic Johnson’s announcement he was HIV-positive (1991), Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live (1992), Bill Clinton’s impeachment (1998), and the shooting of Trayvon Martin (2012). For a sequence covering the morning of the 9/11 attacks, Wolf splits the screen in four to show how ABC, CNN, Fox and CBS cover the breaking news. CNN is there first, with a live shot of smoke pouring from the first tower. The other channels continue with their normal programming. After some minutes, ABC, then CBS, and finally a sluggish Fox, join in. The juxtaposition of morning aerobics with the World Trade Center in flames is stark.

Stokes’s project gradually became more difficult to undertake over the years, especially as videotape itself became scarce. As the Internet redistributed and re-filtered news across a multitude of platforms, television’s importance as the locus of information power waned. The taping carried through until Stokes’s death on December 14, 2012, when news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre broke. “That would have been a rough day anyway,” remarks her tearful son.


Post a Comment



Browse by Decades

Popular Posts


09 10