PBS

How Marion Stokes, an activist who recorded the news nonstop for decades, can help us understand this moment

The activist Marion Stokes spent the better part of her life recording television news on VHS tapes. For 35 years, Stokes taped the then-nascent 24-hour news networks round the clock, creating an awe-inspiring archive of American media’s descent into rigid partisanship, and preserving a record of the myriad ways the truth has been distorted throughout history.

Director Matt Wolf, whose projects include Spaceship Earth and Bayard & Me, spent years working on the documentary Recorder about Marion’s life. The film is as breathtaking as Stokes's collection, which consists of 70,000 VHS cassettes. With careful precision, Wolf unfurls the personal and political development of Stokes’s project, imbuing the film with archival footage that itself tells a story of the past several decades of American history.

“What Marion did that was so unique is that she recognized a paradigm shift in the nature of media, right at the onset of the 24-hour news cycle,” Wolf told Mic. “And her concern that that would distort the truth was certainly very prescient.”

Since its release last fall, Recorder has become even more essential. With the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests over police brutality, the media’s ability to distort and obfuscate is as prevalent as ever. Recorder is full of moments in history that, when placed in context, reveal the subtle ways the media's language has long served to uphold a status quo. Take, for instance, a masterful sequence spanning the decade of the '90s. We watch a newscast placing the response to the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles in contrast to the series finale of The Cosby Show. Sinead O'Connor rips a photo of the pope. Bill Clinton interrupts a broadcast of impeachment hearings with airstrikes in Iraq.

One of the most striking elements of Stokes's life is her appreciation for the power of new technology. A recording of a football game is interrupted with the first Macintosh Computer advertisement in 1984. Stokes's son, Michael Metelis, describes how in some ways his mother viewed Steve Jobs as more of a son than him. We learn that Stokes invested, with her husband John, in Apple stock early on, solidifying her own personal wealth and, ultimately, allowing her to dedicate fully to the project.

Where Stokes presciently saw television as the new stage of America's political theater, many of the patterns of disinformation she observed could be found in our new technologically savvy culture.

“With social media came a lot of amazing tools to engage in organizing and protest movements as we've seen in the past weeks," Wolf says. "It's also democratized the production of information and news, but also often without significant context which has been an issue of distortion and disinformation.”

Wolf points to the recent spree of protests around the country in response to continued racial violence by American police. "I think it was a chaotic experience to witness that unfold on social media," he says. "It will be incredibly informative and instructive for people to be able to look at how the media portrayed that."

Many activists have called out the media's focus on isolated instances of looting and violence at otherwise peaceful protests. For example, some Black reporters at The Los Angeles Times took issue with what they saw as the paper's overemphasis on the issue of looting. It's the kind of issue that Stokes was keenly aware of. The ways in which what news cameras choose to focus on has an outsized effect on history.

Stokes's archive of recordings are currently being digitized thanks to The Internet Archive Foundation, which will over time create a searchable database of her tapes. Beyond that, the organization is continuing Stokes's work, algorithmically recording 24 hour news as it airs. "Marion's tapes will provide more historical background and depth to the material that the internet archive is capturing today," Wolf says.

As any good documentary should, Recorder paints a nuanced picture of Stokes, who in many ways was consumed entirely by her project. Her family was more or less alienated from her and her stepchildren became estranged from their father as a result.

“In some ways what I learned by making the film, was that dysfunction and insight can coexist, and oftentimes they do," Wolf explains. "Particularly when someone pursues a visionary project like this,”

Wolf says over the course of making the documentary, Stokes's family began to heal. "Because people are finding value in what Marion did. It was not all for not,” he says.

Recorder makes clear the value of understanding history as a means of making sense of the present. Wolf describes watching the 14-hour Civil Rights history, Eyes on the Prize, just before this latest wave of protests got started.

"I think the ways in which history represents itself in the present are incredibly meaningful and instructive," he says. "It provides the perspective that makes sense of what is happening around us. Especially as history is now being made on such a real time basis."

Recorder is streaming now on PBS.