The late Marion Stokes, the enigmatic woman at the center of the new documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, lived a series of contradictions.
Her nurse described Stokes as “a giving and loving person,” yet she did not suffer fools gladly and for years was estranged from her only son. She believed in bridging political divides, but a stepdaughter characterized her as “dogmatic.” And in the words of director Matt Wolf she was both “reclusive” and an “activist,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms.
About one thing there is no dispute: Stokes (1929-2012) proved doggedly persistent, especially in the pursuit that came to dominate her life—keeping a close eye on the news media. For over 30 years she monitored television on an unprecedented scale, at the local level in Philadelphia where she lived and on the national level of broadcast and cable TV outlets.
“She recorded television 24 hours a day on multiple channels, capturing not just the news, but local programming, and commercials, and public service announcements, and sitcoms and late night shows,” Wolf explains, “all of the media that has kind of shaped who we are and the world of today.”
Stokes amassed an archive of 70,000 VHS and Betamax tapes, beginning with select programs in the mid-1970s. In 1979, at the start of the Iranian hostage crisis, she began recording multiple channels simultaneously around the clock and didn’t stop until the day she died. She kept up to eight machines humming at once to capture CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, C-SPAN and other networks.
“She felt like there needed to be a definitive resource so that people could check back and seek the truth,” Wolf tells Deadline. “The major networks for the most part were discarding their archives…more or less into the trash can of history. But Marion saw value in it. She saved it.”
Stokes had worked as a librarian, but was fired from that job in the early 1960s, the film suggests, because of her Communist sympathies (at one point she tried to defect to Cuba). Though her political persuasions were left-wing, Wolf says Stokes’ recording project was not motivated by partisanship. Another of the paradoxes that surround her.
“What she did in this project was very ideologically agnostic,” Wolf insists. “She wasn’t interested in editorializing the material. She didn’t rewatch the material. Like a library or an institution, she was very focused on capturing everything and creating a definitive record of the media.”
Stokes was driven by a deep skepticism over the way media narratives are shaped and purveyed to audiences.
“She was obsessed with the mediation of the media, how media reflects a society back to itself,” her son Michael Metelits observes in Recorder. “Her goal was trying to reveal a set of agendas on the part of governments.”
The utility of the Stokes archive can be seen in coverage of the notorious MOVE bombing of 1985, when authorities in Philadelphia dropped explosives onto row houses occupied by members of a black liberation organization. The resulting fire killed 11 people, including five children and MOVE’s founder. In the news reports Stokes taped, the national media invariably described MOVE as a “radical” group, influencing the audience’s perception. Who decided it was a radical group?
“These activists were just pejoratively characterized as radicals,” Wolf notes, adding that he explored the MOVE incident as a way to reveal how cases of police brutality were covered by mainstream news media. “What I found was just an endemic racial bias and reporting of it, which I think it’s fair to say…diminishes the pattern of racism and policing, and the MOVE bombing was a really relevant example of that.”
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is now playing in Los Angeles and opened in theaters in New York and Philadelphia late last month. It has qualified for Oscar consideration this year as Best Documentary Feature.
After Stokes’ death at age 83, her son donated her collection of recordings to the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, which is in the process of digitizing all of the material. Eventually it will become available to the public, a vast searchable database of our collective experience.
“All news had to be kept,” Stokes’ driver recalls as his boss’s imperative. “For history. For posterity.”
The film explores another aspect of Stokes’ life—as a public intellectual and commentator. She not only recorded news programs, but appeared on and co-produced Input, a current affairs show on cable access in Philadelphia.
“Input was in essence, kind of consciousness-raising sessions [with] round tables of people of differing experiences,” Wolf explains, “whether it was a a priest or a secretary, a tarot reading person, [folk singer] Pete Seeger, an ex-con, black power activists—incredibly diverse groups of people would discuss very esoteric and very expansive topics.”
Marion worked closely there with the show’s host, a wealthy white philanthropist named John Stokes. Their partnership would become romantic.
“It was through Input that Marion and John forged a lifelong bond. John was married, Marion was a single mother and John left his family and fell in love with Marion and they married,” the director comments. “It was a transformative and pivotal thing in both of their lives.”
Marion Stokes became an early and enthusiastic investor in Apple, which expanded the Stokes family fortune. That wealth helped bankroll her recording project and at one point she maintained nine apartments to store her tapes, as well as everything else she collected.
“My understanding is that the apartments were like a maze of material, mostly media, and that she would know where everything was,” Wolf observes. “But to others it would seem like a mess…It was the kind of lifestyle that would be characterized as hoarding. But I was very delicate in terms of pathologizing Marion’s behavior and activity because it was something that had a really clear focus and a vision that was influenced by a political conviction.”
Recorder will eventually become available on DVD and streaming platforms and will air in the spring on public television, which the director sees as fitting.
“It will be on PBS, which we’re excited about because this is a film about public access to media,” he notes. “PBS is a really perfect partner.”