How Marion Stokes, an Activist Librarian, Recorded 30 Years of TV News on 70,000 Video Tapes: It’s All Now Being Digitized and Put Online

“Noth­ing is more impor­tant than tele­vi­sion,” said J.D. Salinger (as imper­son­at­ed, that is, in an episode of Bojack Horse­man). A pas­sive, paci­fy­ing medium—“cool,” as Mar­shall McLuhan called it—TV has also long been an easy tar­get for pun­dit­ry, for many decades before the per­pe­tra­tor du jour, video games. Tele­vi­sion spread igno­rance, was “the drug of the nation,” said Michael Fran­ti, ped­dled fake heroes on “chan­nel zero,” said Pub­lic Ene­my, and would lead to an “elec­tri­cal re-trib­al­iza­tion of the West,” McLuhan pre­dict­ed (and fur­ther explained in this inter­view).

Mar­i­on Stokes set out to do more than any of the men above who made pro­nounce­ments about tele­vi­sion. She ded­i­cat­ed her life to pre­serv­ing the evi­dence, tap­ing tele­vi­sion news for over 33 years, from 1979 “until the day she died,” writes the Inter­net Archive, who now hold Stokes’ “unique 71k+ video cas­sette col­lec­tion” and intend to dig­i­tize all of it. Stokes “was a fierce­ly pri­vate African Amer­i­can social jus­tice cham­pi­on, librar­i­an, polit­i­cal rad­i­cal, TV pro­duc­er, fem­i­nist, Apple Com­put­er super-fan and col­lec­tor like few oth­ers.”

She “ques­tioned the media’s moti­va­tions and rec­og­nized the insid­i­ous inten­tion­al spread of dis­in­for­ma­tion…. Ms. Stokes was alarmed. In a pri­vate her­culean effort, she took on the chal­lenge of inde­pen­dent­ly pre­serv­ing the news record of her times in its most per­va­sive and per­sua­sive form—TV.” She also pre­served three decades of tele­vised cri­tiques of tele­vi­sion. She began mak­ing her archive at the begin­ning of the Iran Hostage Cri­sis on Novem­ber 14, 1979. “She hit record and nev­er stopped,” her son Michael Metelits says in Recorder: The Mar­i­on Stokes Project, “a new­ly released doc­u­men­tary,” reports Atlas Obscu­ra, “about [Stokes] and the archival project that became her life’s work.”

In one remark­able exam­ple of TV cri­tique, at the top, we see William Davi­don, pro­fes­sor of Physics at Haver­ford Col­lege, decry­ing tele­vi­sion for spread­ing igno­rance, social irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty, and pas­sive con­sump­tion, mak­ing peo­ple unable to par­tic­i­pate in the polit­i­cal process. The round­table dis­cus­sion took place on a 1968 episode of Input. A lit­tle over a year lat­er, writes the Inter­net Archive, Davi­don “would take an action of great social con­se­quence,” break­ing into an FBI field office with sev­en oth­ers and steal­ing the evi­dence that “revealed COINTELPRO.” (They were nev­er caught, and Davidon’s role only came out posthu­mous­ly.)

Then known as Mar­i­on Metelits, Stokes co-pro­duced Input, a local Philadel­phia Sun­day morn­ing talk show, with her future hus­band John S. Stokes Jr., and both of them appear on the pro­gram above (both cred­it­ed as rep­re­sent­ing the Well­springs Ecu­meni­cal Cen­ter). The con­ver­sa­tion ranges wide­ly, with Ms. Metelits and Davi­don spirit­ed­ly defend­ing “human poten­tial” against too-rigid sys­tems of clas­si­fi­ca­tion and manip­u­la­tion. There are a few dozen more episodes of Input cur­rent­ly at the Inter­net Archive, with pan­els fea­tur­ing aca­d­e­mics, activists, and cler­gy (such as the episode explain­ing, sort of, the “Well­springs Ecu­meni­cal Cen­ter.”)

It’s a hard-hit­ting, con­tro­ver­sial show for a local broad­cast, and it gives us a detailed view of a range of both pop­u­lar and rad­i­cal posi­tions of the time, includ­ing Stokes’, which we can learn more about in the jour­nals, notes, lists, news­pa­per and mag­a­zine clip­pings, pam­phlets, leaflets, hand­bills, and more she col­lect­ed since 1960, many of which have also been dig­i­tized at the Inter­net Archive. Stokes backed her views with action. She was “sur­veilled by the gov­ern­ment for her ear­ly polit­i­cal activism,” Atlas Obscu­ra writes, and “attempt­ed to defect to Cuba” with her first hus­band Melvin Metelits. She kept her record­ing project pri­vate, “eschewed Tivo” and “nev­er sent an email in her life.”

She also made a small for­tune in Apple stock, which fund­ed her project and “the mas­sive stor­age space she required as the sole force behind it.” Stokes left us no doubt as to why she doc­u­ment­ed thir­ty years of TV news. But those doc­u­ments get to speak for themselves—or they will, at least. Stokes record­ed far more than her own pro­gram, three decades more. And the Inter­net Archive is cur­rent­ly “endeav­or­ing to help make sure” the entire col­lec­tion “is dig­i­tized and made avail­able online to every­one, for­ev­er, for free.”

If tele­vi­sion had, and maybe still has, the pow­er ascribed to it by its many astute crit­ics, then Mar­i­on Stokes’ painstak­ing archive offers an invalu­able means of under­stand­ing how we got to where we are, if not how to change course. Stokes’ col­lec­tion, and the doc­u­men­tary about her life, show “how the news was going to evolve into an addic­tion,” as Owen Gleiber­man writes at Vari­ety. The project took over her life and frac­tured her rela­tion­ships. “Even if you’re obsessed with the inac­cu­ra­cy of TV news, it has still entrapped you, like a two-way mir­ror that won’t let you see the oth­er side.” If the medi­um is the mes­sage, the oth­er side might always be more tele­vi­sion.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Mar­shall McLuhan’s The Medi­um is the Mas­sage (1967)

5 Ani­ma­tions Intro­duce the Media The­o­ry of Noam Chom­sky, Roland Barthes, Mar­shall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stu­art Hall

New Archive Makes Avail­able 800,000 Pages Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of Film, Tele­vi­sion & Radio

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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