Marion Stokes Captured American Media Through 33 Years of 24/7 Recordings

Her life and life’s work is shown through a new documentary screening at The Roxie.

Marion Stokes might have been a visionary ahead of her time. 

After her death in 2012, the proof is being immortalized as a San Francisco-based archive is trying to digitize one of her greatest legacies — around  71,000 individual video cassettes that chronicled over three decades of news.

Stokes was a communist, a librarian, and a radical activist who didn’t fully trust media coverage and the government. Stokes had recorded TV on and off since the mid-1970s. But when the Iranian hostage crisis started in 1979, she started taping news 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“My mother was very suspicious of the official stories of the Iranian hostage crisis. And she became obsessed with the media coverage,” her son, Michael Metelits, said in a documentary that will be screening at The Roxie Theater starting Jan. 17. “She felt that important information was being lost as the story evolved. So she kept taping.” 

The documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, captures Stokes beyond her archival role. In the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, Stokes is portrayed as a complicated figure, shaped by her own distrust of news channels, her progressive politics, and her upbringing as an adoptee. 

Stokes was a lot of things, but it’s unclear if she ever intended to go down in history as a historian. Her dedication to this work was exhaustive, comprehensive, and became a routine part of her everyday life. Stokes always had to have a recording going. Even if she stepped out of her home, she’d know if and when she needed to return to switch out an empty cassette. 

“I don’t think it was joyful to her — this taping. And if the tape wasn’t going she was not happy,” Anna Lofton, Stokes’ nurse, said in the documentary. “She couldn’t leave the apartment without having a tape in.” Stokes was both secretive and careful about her tapes. They’d arrive to her in black trash bags on her doorstep, and Stokes invested in high-quality recorders, making their later preservations easier to manage.

The work Stokes did — recording both pivotal and banal moments of American history — is a boon. After her death, in 2013, her son reached out to a number of places in an attempt to save the tapes. One of those places was San Francisco’s Internet Archive, a nonprofit that started archiving the web in 1996. 

Roger Macdonald, a fellow at the Internet Archive and founder of its television news archive, is currently trying to figure out a way to preserve and digitize the tapes, which may cost anywhere around $10 to $25 per cassette. They’re also looking for a big enough space to simply hold them with a “modest rent.” (The tapes, since their arrival in the winter of 2013 and 2014, have been sitting in a Richmond, Calif. warehouse.)

“One of the things we’re going to be looking for is warehouse space for at least a year that’s sufficient enough to hold three tractor trailer loads of video cassettes,” Macdonald says. “We’ve just started to ask around in the past few weeks to see if anyone has a sufficient warehouse that’s dry and secure enough.”

It’s a lot of work, but there are compelling reasons to archive, digitize, and make 35 years worth of television news available free and for the public.

Macdonald points to the Retro Report as a live example, looking particularly at their report on the crack baby hysteria of the 1980s. Through archival footage, the Retro Report was able to see how the crisis was fictionalized, and subsequently used to criminalize pregnant mothers suffering from addiction.

Without accountability from archival material, Macdonald believes that we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes.

“How we understand how society is driven by events in the news,” Macdonald says.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. Not rated. Opens Jan. 17 at The Roxie.

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