On November 4, 1979 Marion Stokes began systematically video taping television news and continued for more than 33 years, until the day she died. The Internet Archive is now home to the unique 71k+ video cassette collection and is endeavoring to help make sure it is digitized and made available online to everyone, forever, for free.
Ms. 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. Her life and idiosyncratic passions are sensitively explored in the exceedingly well reviewed new documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, by Matt Wolf. Having premiered last month at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, the film is on tour and will be featured at San Francisco’s Indefest, June 8th & 10th. For those in the Bay Area, please consider joining Internet Archive staff and leadership at the 7:00pm June 10th screening. Advance tickets are available now, seating is limited.
Long before many 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.
Background Materials, Resources & Reviews
Marion Stokes and her future husband John Stokes appear in and helped produce Input, a weekly panel discussion series on the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia that ran from 1968 through early 1971. It addressed a remarkable range of timely social topics, some far ahead of their time. Panelists included diverse thoughtful scholars, activists, clergy and others. Some had already made recognized accomplishments. And some would only later make their profound contributions to civil rights and social justice.
Pete Seeger was already a well known political folk singer when he appeared in February 1970 on a panel with a prison warden and recently released inmates discussing the nature of incarceration and criminal justice reform. Here he is sharing his song “Walking Down Death Row” on the program.
John Fryer was a Philadelphia psychiatrist. Here he is on Input in January 1968 discussing contradictory social norms. Five years later, Dr. Fryer would give a speech, in disguise, at the American Psychiatric Association annual convention. Introduced as Dr. Anonymous, he announced “I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist. I am a member of the APA,” He went on to decry the prejudice directed toward gay people by the Association and social institutions. Dr. Fryer’s brave and bold call for reform is credited as galvanizing his peers in 1973 to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
William Davidon was professor of Physics at Haverford College. Here he is in a December 1968 Input episode, discussing the nature of television as a means of manipulating an uninformed public. 27 months later he would take an action of great social consequence and his role would remain secret for the next 43 years. In 2014, the book The Burglary posthumously revealed Dr. Davidon as the leader of a group that in 1971 broke into the FBI field office in Media, PA. They were never caught. The 8-member team stole, and released to the press, an enormous trove of documents that revealed COINTELPRO. It was the FBI’s then 15-year long covert, and often illegal, domestic surveillance program to disrupt, discredit and destroy American civil rights, anti-war and other social activist organizations and leaders. Included in the documents was evidence of the FBI’s attempt to induce, via blackmail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to commit suicide. The release of the papers lead to significant additional revelations by journalists and Congressional investigations, which prompted substantial reform.
Ms. Stokes was a committed diarist, note taker and list maker. Under the leadership of archivist Jackie Jay, The Internet Archive has been digitizing the contents of 55 bankers boxes of her papers that include her personal journals, magazines, newspapers, civic organization pamphlets, leaflets and handbills. Some of her earliest (1960 & 1961) hand-written journal entries are now publicly available and can be viewed here. More will be added as they are scanned and QC’d.
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” Documentary Reviews & Press
“Matt Wolf’s remarkable Recorder uses Stokes’ recording obsession as a way to explore both Stokes herself and the world she literally committed to video tape. The results are fascinating, weird, and often quite moving.” – Indiewire
“Intriguing from first minute to last… Relating this stranger-than-fiction tale with the narrative twists and turns of a well-paced thriller, Recorder will make news junkies feel a lot better about themselves.” – Hollywood Reporter
“One outstanding offering in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is Recorder, which reveals the secret greatness of a reclusive activist… An information revolutionary, Stokes, despite her decades of isolation, touched the nerve center of the times.” – The New Yorker
“Recorder is more than just a portrait of a woman’s complicated relationships and obsessions… Recorder quietly seeds damning observations about the ways media narratives are formed, and how the shapers of these narratives distort the truth and our worldview.” – Flixist
“Stokes’s archival work is unprecedented; a time machine back to the advent of the 24-hour news cycle covering historical and cultural events that otherwise would have been overlooked” – The Outline
“But Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is not just — or even predominantly — an essay film about the media. What makes the documentary so fascinating is the parallel it draws between restoring an archive and retrieving a life.” – Filmmaker Magazine
“…rarely do we experience the passion and purpose of a methodical collector, who really made a difference. Matt Wolf’s masterful documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project takes us into the visionary psychic and cluttered physical worlds of a woman who turned her acquiring fury into a unique archive of contemporary history.” – Helen Highly
“But maybe the real value of the Marion Stokes Project is that starting close to 20 years before the digital age, it reveals how the news was going to evolve into an addiction, one that had the power to displace whatever subject it was ostensibly about. For 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.” – Variety
“The story of Marion Stokes inspires and challenges us to consider our world and the legacy we can create through dedication to our own ideals and principals.” – 2019 Maryland Film Festival
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Projectmanages to capsulize Stokes’ efforts and present them as a springboard for a greater conversation on the societal effects of the media, and what we can accomplish given the right resources and individual determination.” – Film Threat
“Data, it is said, is the new oil. A woman named Marion Stokes knew this early on and believed that freedom was inextricably linked to data and facts because with it one can make informed decisions. So she took what is seen as a curious and radical approach to feverishly create massive archives of what used to be the prime source of such data, television news, in a time when no one else would.“ – Forbes
“This story is beautifully told, inspiring, and is a constant reminder that everything we hear is not always the whole truth.” – Irish Film Critic
“Much like Stokes’ archives, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is a cautionary reminder that, now more than ever, we need to be scrutinizing who is shaping the breaking news we consume.” Cinema Axis
“Marion had fought a quixotic but worthy battle against the tyranny of transience.” – New Statesman
The first ( November 2013) press article on the Marion Stokes TV Archive [note: early estimates of collection size were off by a factor of 2]
The Incredible Story Of Marion Stokes, Who Single-Handedly Taped 35 Years Of TV News – Sarah Kessler