BOB GARFIELD The same media who’ve crushed it on impeachment coverage have lately taken to a special kind of pandering--it’s called “bothsidesism.”
JON ALLSOP There was a story last weekend in The New York Times, framing a hearing about impeachment as a partisan brawl.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Also this week, the Afghan war cluster fail--
CRAIG WHITLOCK Cluster fail is a good word and people in the military use a version of that a lot.
BOB GARFIELD The explosive Afghanistan Papers like the Pentagon Papers before them is a trove documenting government confusion and lies.
CRAIG WHITLOCK We didn't know what we were doing. Were all those lives lost in vain?
BOB GARFIELD Plus, a different kind of trove. This one, videotapes born of a decades-long obsession to record TV news.
MATT WOLF Networks were discarding their archives, so she had the impulse to capture everything because she knew that in a sense, archives create futures.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is off. I'm Bob Garfield. This week for the American political press, it has been all impeachment, all the time. You'd expect no less, for only the third presidential impeachment in U.S. history. And as has been so for three months, since reports of an emergent whistleblower first appeared, news consumers have been blessed with diligent documentation, incisive analysis, revealing investigations of ongoing mischief and methodical debunking of both fresh lies and the zombie lies that will not die. You know, journalism. Or, as the president and the Congressional Republican Caucus call it: bias.
NEWS REPORT After an 11-hour debate last night, the House ultimately voted to impeach President Trump on two articles: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT We just saw what is a very bitterly divided America on display. Virtually every Democrat voting for impeachment, every Republican voting against it. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT It comes nearly three months after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry. [END CLIP]
NANCY PELOSI I soundly and sadly opened the debate on the impeachment of the President of the United States. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD To the audience on the political right, witnesses of fact, and for the reporters who report on them are guilty of partisanship and treachery. Which, if you're a journalist, is hard to listen to and evidently triggers a media reflex of another sort: the passing along of false equivalencies. It's sometimes called “bothsidesism,” wishing to maintain an image of fairness, balance and objectivity and wishing not to be or even seem to be partisan. News organizations seem incapable of dealing with stories in which one party has all the facts on its side. Jon Allsop writes the Columbia Journalism Review morning newsletter, The Media Today, and he has been following a rash of bothsidesism outbreaks.
JON ALLSOP There was a story last weekend in The New York Times, for example, that seemed to attract the ire of quite a few media critics on Twitter, framing a hearing in the Judiciary Committee in the House about impeachment as a partisan brawl. Literally used the words “both sides” on four occasions. One of them was in a quotation. But nonetheless there was phrasing kind of throughout that story, that was very redolent of the Democrats having one view of the impeachment and the Republicans having another, which is true until you consider that the Democrats have the facts, by and large on their side and the Republicans are distributing talking points that range from extreme disingenuousness to outright wackadoo conspiracy theories. Clearly, those are not equivalent positions.
BOB GARFIELD Tell me what the story was meant to be and tell me what you think it accomplished.
JON ALLSOP The story was about a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. You know, the headline was the first thing that infuriated a lot of those critics. “The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment.” This notion of partisan impeachment, which again, is factually the case in the sense that it is the Democratic Party who are in favor of doing this. But it's that partisan framing that again reduces this to a question of two sides. “One side says ‘x,’ the other side says ‘y,’” regardless of the factual equivalency of those positions. There were instances of that kind of language throughout the piece. Jay Rosen, who is a journalism professor at New York University, pulled out I think like 12 examples of this both sides dynamics. For instance, disputes over basic facts. Both sides engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction. The different impeachment realities the two parties are living in. Again, factually, you can make a case that all of these things are true by the letter of what they say. But one of the realities is a real reality, it’s actually reality. And the other one is an unreality, or it is to a very large extent.
BOB GARFIELD It's also easy to understand how news organizations get tied up into such knots when reporting facts and evidence and context essentially serves one political party and plays havoc with the other. We want to be perceived as honest brokers, and yet whenever this situation occurs, we face the accusations that we are an opposition party unto ourselves. What the hell do we do about that?
JON ALLSOP When you start chasing popular perception of your coverage, your coverage starts to become reactionary. But I think it's particularly the case when one side has really figured out that if they spin and lie and deflect and deceive, they can take advantage of that coverage model that you just described. One side has worked out how to game that system. If you were trying to sort of appease that logic, you are asking to be taken advantage of. The current model of both sides clearly at the moment is rebounding to the benefit of one side. It is a victory in and of itself for that side to have their conspiratorial talking points taken seriously because it muddies the waters. Their strategy is to muddy the waters. There are always trade offs here, there are always choices to be made, and the idea that trying to steer a middle path, you will not be accused of bias, you will not benefit one side or the other, I think is a complete fiction.
BOB GARFIELD The epithet that we face and have faced for at least 50 years as part of a coordinated attack on the fourth estate is the word “bias.” How are we as an institution to explain to the electorate that there is a difference between bias and analysis, and attention to the evidence and just judgment?
JON ALLSOP Is this impeachment story not the perfect story to try and start dispelling some of those accusations of bias? This isn't necessarily a story or a set of facts that has to rest on ideology or liberal assumptions. It's a pretty easy and simple set of facts. The reason we have this impeachment inquiry is because Democrats figured they could fit what Trump did with Ukraine and why it's wrong on a bumper sticker. Now, of course, it's not the press's job to be reinforcing Democratic talking points, such as they are. But the fact pattern here is actually quite simple and should be of bipartisan concern. I think if you just cleave close to those facts then the people who are not totally lost to the poisoned well of misinformation should be able to look at that and say, “I don't think this is liberal ideology, I don’t think this is bias. This is just a clear set of facts that shows clear wrongdoing.” And I think we have allowed those basic facts to get muddied in this impeachment story.
BOB GARFIELD Well, we do have a bias, of course, and that bias is to detail. It was probably inevitable that in the hunt to fill in the holes in the story, that we would find some incongruities and different recollections and even suspicions about the truthfulness of some of the witnesses. Surely you're not suggesting we should have just stopped, had the whistleblower complaint and waited for the House Democrats to act?
JON ALLSOP No, I don't think so at all. Then all of the incongruities, ambiguities, all of that had to be examined in very close detail by the press. But the White House, first of all, literally released record of Trump's call with the president of Ukraine, which shows him asking for an investigation into the Bidens and the Democratic Party based on a conspiracy theory. And Trump then came out onto the White House lawn very early in this process and told reporters, “Ukraine should investigate the Bidens, and so should China.”
BOB GARFIELD How can it be that we haven't figured out a way to just be us and, you know, do journalism without having to worry about the perceptions swirling all around us?
JON ALLSOP It's really, really hard. This is not a level playing field here. It is much easier when you don't have to obey rules of integrity and fact, to come up with a compelling narrative. Obviously, we as the press don't have control over the way information is distributed in the 21st century. If we can't control these kind of things, and all we can control is what we do, then let’s just not worry so much about what people think about us. Clearly, you have to worry what your readers think about you because you want to serve them a product that they want to read. But there is a difference between doing that in a thoughtful way and compromising the way you would otherwise do your reporting. I think also there is a generational thing. Many big newsrooms are led by people of an older generation who learned journalism, did journalism, in an age that looks very different to the one we're in now, and in an informational ecosystem that was in many ways totally different. Whether it's old kind of rules of the road were unquestioningly applied to bothsidesism, etc. And I think to a certain extent, old habits die hard.
BOB GARFIELD I feel obliged to ask you this. Does the fact that the press continues to be incapable of dealing with the tension between its job and perceptions of how it does its job, does it mean that the great right wing media conspiracy won? That somewhere in his grave Roger Ailes won?
JON ALLSOP That’s kind of a depressing question, Bob. No, because it's an ongoing struggle to put the facts across. It doesn't end at one moment in time. You know, this is a number of different battles being fought across all sorts of different terrains and different types of coverage. So I don't think you could just conclude that those who would seek to propagandize and mislead have won. Political realities change. Hegemonies never last forever. And we need to go forward into the future and put it on as sound a factual basis as we can, we can muster.
BOB GARFIELD Jon, thank you.
JON ALLSOP Thank you for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Jon Allsop lives in London where he writes their morning newsletter, The Media Today. Coming up, nearly a half century ago, the Pentagon Papers revealed the government's lies about Vietnam. Lesson learned? Guess not. The newly published Afghanistan Papers are an infuriating sequel.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. On the very same day that the war in Afghanistan began, the spin began too.
NEWS REPORT Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, came out in a very terse, direct statement, said, “We are beginning another front in our war against terrorism so that freedom can prevail over fear.” [END CLIP]
PRESIDENT BUSH We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it. The name of today's military operation is Enduring Freedom. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Freedom? Not really. But enduring? Oh, yeah.
NEWS REPORT The air campaign is in its 20th day to day. The bombing campaign is causing more civilian casualties and more public protest...
NEWS REPORT ...More than 10000 soldiers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division.
PRESIDENT BUSH We fight now and we will keep on fighting until our victory is complete.
NEWS REPORT The mission is not only important. It is also achievable. We can and will accomplish this mission.
NEWS REPORT So far, we believe we have been making gradual but important progress.
NEWS REPORT Progress has been made to try to advance security.
NEWS REPORT And Secretary Robert Gates says progress in the war in Afghanistan is exceeding his expectations.
PRESIDENT OBAMA We can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And though premonitions of a Vietnam-like quagmire were voiced early and often, back in 2001, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cracked jokes about the very premise.
DONALD REMISE It looked like nothing was happening. Indeed, it looked like we were in a, altogether now, quagmire. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But as Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock revealed, a once-secret internal history of the war found that the “quagmire” was and is real. The Afghanistan Papers, as the Post is calling this monumental reporting project, was three years in the making. The project was initiated in the Pentagon by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, but it took two lawsuits and untold records requests to eventually yield the two thousand pages that document 400 interviews with generals, diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials. And like the Pentagon Papers that 48 years ago laid bare the government's strategic blunders and lies about Vietnam, this federal reporting project reveals the efforts of three administrations over nearly two decades to spin expensive bloody failure into success.
CRAIG WHITLOCK For many years, both under Bush and Obama and somewhat under Trump, the generals would always stick to the same talking points. “We're in a tough fight.” “There are challenges.” “We don't know how it's going to go exactly, but we're making progress.” “We're turning the corner.” Sometimes they would say “we're winning.” And that contrasted 180 degrees from what some of these same people were saying in what we call the Afghanistan Papers.
BOB GARFIELD This is Major General Jeffrey Schloesser briefing the press in September 2008 after calling for reinforcements.
JEFFREY SCHLOESSER We are not losing it. The enemy cannot win, even given what we have here now.
NEWS REPORT When you said you are not losing, are you saying that you are winning?
JEFFREY SCHLOESSER Look, you know, the truth is, is that I feel like, you know, we're making some steady progress. It's a slow win, I guess is probably what we're accomplishing right on over here. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD It was a laugh line even a decade ago. But if the press was skeptical, is it fair to say, Craig, that we were institutionally also kind of uncritical in passing these Pollyanna evaluations from the government along?
CRAIG WHITLOCK I think the problem is sometimes we would feel obliged to carry along the comments from people like General Schloesser as he said them. Now, usually we would include context. We would note that at the time General Schloesser was saying this, that U.S. troops were suffering a lot of casualties, that field commanders were asking for reinforcements, that bombings by the Taliban were on the increase. So I think the news media in Afghanistan and covering the Pentagon did a faithful job in chronicling the setbacks and the failures and the problems. What I think, again, is different about these Afghanistan papers is it's the people who were responsible for the policy. Finally, we're getting admission from people in charge that all those things they said all along weren't true.
BOB GARFIELD It seems like one of the complications was that success was a moving target. Were we there to eradicate al-Qaeda? Were we there to rout the Taliban? To build security infrastructure? To build democratic institutions? To fight corruption? To empower tribal leaders? To build physical infrastructure like roads and schools? Encourage women's rights? Wipe out the opium trade? Win hearts and minds of the Afghan populace? Not so much mission creep, but like 10 different missions, some mutually exclusive.
CRAIG WHITLOCK Well, that's right. Back in 2001, there was enormous public support for President Bush's decision to retaliate for 9/11 and to extinguish the al-Qaeda threat as best we could. That mission was largely accomplished within six months in Afghanistan. But we stayed and that's when things started to go awry. The people who were in charge of the war, in charge of the policy, admit that we lost our way. How would we know when we accomplished all these other objectives? They last forever. We're never going to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland. There's no doubt that women are treated very poorly in Afghanistan. But that wasn't why we originally sent troops. And it's not realistic to say we're going to have a victory against the Taliban.
BOB GARFIELD How many lives and how much treasure have been expended in 19 years, tilting at these 9 or 10 windmills?
CRAIG WHITLOCK 2300 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan. More than 20,000 wounded. More than 3,000 U.S. defense contractors have been killed. About 1500 NATO and coalition troops have lost their lives. The Afghans have taken by far the biggest brunt of this war. Fifty thousand, sixty thousand, Afghan security forces have lost their lives. The casualty numbers for the Afghan army and police are so high that the government keeps that number classified. It would be so demoralizing if they put the true numbers out. But the best estimates are that more than 160,000 people have lost their lives since 2001 due to the fighting in Afghanistan.
BOB GARFIELD For only a trillion dollars or more?
CRAIG WHITLOCK Or more is probably more accurate. The best estimates we've spent close to a trillion dollars on the military operations and trying to rebuild Afghanistan. Those don't take into account the indirect costs, such as VA care for our troops who came back wounded. And since there's more than 20,000 of those, we're going to be caring for those people for many, many years. The cost of the interest we did to take on the debt, the cost of intelligence operations, all these things, it's really hard to add up. But at a minimum, we've spent a trillion dollars. But the real costs are going to be many times that.
BOB GARFIELD We didn't just go in there killing people, although we killed a lot of people. We poured a lot of cash into Afghanistan, spread it out among tribal leaders and various kinds of infrastructure programs and government agencies. And it had the effect of taking the smoldering embers of corrupt culture and turning it into like, a seven-day alarm blaze.
CRAIG WHITLOCK It did over time. President Bush tried very hard to get the United Nations and other allies to take on the task of trying to build up Afghanistan. That didn't work very well. So after a few years, the Bush administration started spending some more money because they realized that Afghanistan was such a fragile state that the Taliban could come back and take power again. And then when President Obama took office, he took the complete opposite approach of Bush, which was, “we need to get the population on the side of this nascent Afghan government, so we're going to spend out the wazoo.” Forgive my description. People in these interviews we obtained said people back in Washington didn't care what they were spending it on as long as they could show that they had spent it. A congressional delegation came to Afghanistan and was asking how were they doing with these rebuilding projects? Or as one military officer who said to the congressman, “You're asking me to spend 3 million dollars a day in this Afghan district the size of a U.S. county. Could you do this at home?” And the congressman said, “No, of course not.” And he says, “Well, you're asking me to do this in a place with mud huts and no windows.” Afghanistan was never a place that had a clean, well-run government. But now with these billions and billions of dollars flowing in, the opportunities for corruption were unavoidable.
BOB GARFIELD Maybe what's so powerful about your reporting is it reveals not only what we should have known, but actually did know more or less, but never seemed to lose much sleep over. Vietnam divided America. Afghanistan has not. Why?
CRAIG WHITLOCK Well, one big difference other than the death toll and the fact that in Vietnam, Americans were being drafted. One other big difference with Afghanistan is the start started the war. There was enormous public support for it because of the memories of 9/11. And there was a reluctance to question perhaps the military assurances that they were making steady progress, and you need to trust us on this, this is a war that is being fought for the right reasons.
BOB GARFIELD I want to go back to the process of your reporting. The documents you obtained, obtained not from a whistleblower smuggling papers or thumb drives out the back door of the Pentagon, but through the legal process.
CRAIG WHITLOCK Well, that's right. We obtained these the old fashioned way, which is through a public records request. And this started back in August of 2016 by another old fashioned newsgathering way, which was a tip that Michael Flynn, the retired Army general, who was then attracting a lot of attention for his support of Donald Trump and his dislike of Hillary Clinton.
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN Donald Trump will execute the fundamental tenet of peace through strength. And there will be no apologies for our American exceptionalism or leadership standing around the world. [END CLIP]
CRAIG WHITLOCK This tip was that General Flynn had given a long interview, that had been unpublished, to a government agency, in which he was railing against the war in Afghanistan.
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN Never mind not accomplishing our mission, but the severity of corruption in our own system, I think is just unbelievable. [END CLIP]
CRAIG WHITLOCK Flynn had been a very key player in the war. He served as Chief of Military Intelligence for the U.S. coalition in Kabul. So we were interested in what he had to say.
SIGAR Is this a classified?
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN Yes, it is.
SIGAR So one piece, what is that on?
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN Let me turn that off. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Who was he telling this to?
CRAIG WHITLOCK The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. This agency had done a special project starting in 2014 to try and understand mistakes made in Afghanistan from a policy standpoint. We heard that they had done an interview with General Flynn. We had heard it was unclassified. So we went right to the front door, knocked and asked the agency if we could have a copy of what General Flynn had said. We thought they would respond maybe a couple of weeks. It started to drag out pretty quickly. We filed a Freedom of Information Act requests. Long story short, we had to file a lawsuit. And finally, we obtained it. But it took a long time.
BOB GARFIELD Three years. Were you being stonewalled by this agency? Were you being slow rolled? Was there a cover up in progress?
CRAIG WHITLOCK I don't want to use the word cover up, but there's no question this was the bureaucratic art of stonewalling and slow rolling. We had asked for these documents. They're not classified after we asked for them under the Freedom of Information Act requests. Then this agency said, “Oh, well, we need to send it to other government agencies like the State Department, Defense Department, just to make sure none of these people happened to blurt out anything classified.” So that took more months and we had to file a second lawsuit. And we still don't have everything. There is another 200-plus interviews that we've been denied that have been conducted more recently since 2017. We're optimistic we'll get those in the coming weeks and months.
BOB GARFIELD Can you give me some examples of the unvarnished opinions on the cluster fail that was and is the Afghanistan occupation?
CRAIG WHITLOCK Cluster fail is a good word and people in the military use a version of that a lot. One of the interviews that jumped out at me right away was with Lt. General Douglas Lute, who served as the Afghan War czar, as they called him, in the White House under Bush and Obama. He was very blunt and he said, “We didn't know what we were doing. 2,400 lives lost. Were all those lost in vain?” Another White House official, a Navy Seal named Jeffrey Eggers, who again served both Bush and Obama. He says, “What did we get for a trillion dollars? When Osama bin Laden was killed, I thought he must be laughing in his watery grave over how much money we spent.” If I could say a word about bin Laden, what he wanted was for the U.S. to get drawn into a long running war in Afghanistan that would cost us an enormous amount of money, just like what happened to the Soviet Union. So I think Jeffrey Eggers, when he said that bin Laden was “laughing in his watery grave,” I don't think it's hyperbole.
BOB GARFIELD Apart from the Inspector General's materials, you also got snowflakes. Tell me about snowflakes.
CRAIG WHITLOCK Donald Rumsfeld, when he was a defense secretary, didn't use email. He would dictate brief memos to a staff person, essentially barking out orders. And at the Pentagon, they became known as “snowflakes.” You know, imagine thousands of pieces of paper settling on your desk. And Rumsfeld literally dictated more than 70,000 of these snowflakes during his time in office.
BOB GARFIELD Give me the highlights.
CRAIG WHITLOCK Just six months into the war, he sends a snowflake to several generals and policy aides. And he says, “We need to find a policy to stabilize Afghanistan so we can get our troops out of there. Otherwise, we're never going to get out of Afghanistan.” And the last line of the snowflake was one word. It said, “Help!” Exclamation point. So even back in March of 2002, back when Rumsfeld and the Bush White House were beating their chests over how well the war was going…
NEWS REPORT To the extent that the United States of America decides to undertake an activity, we will be capable of doing it. [END CLIP]
CRAIG WHITLOCK Behind the scenes, Rumsfeld is worried the US military was never going to be able to withdraw.
BOB GARFIELD We've talked about the parallels between the Afghanistan Papers and the Pentagon Papers, and they're obvious. So was the irony, because the project was titled “Lessons Learned.” And it certainly makes clear that in the 40 years between Vietnam and Afghanistan, no lessons were learned.
CRAIG WHITLOCK Now, a double irony here is that the Inspector General did publish reports from its “Lessons Learned” program in Afghanistan, compilations of statistics and summaries written in a way that make you fall asleep. And they sanitized all the good stuff people were saying in these interviews. The Inspector General didn't learn its own lesson, which was, we need to be forthcoming with the truth instead of trying to whitewash it.
BOB GARFIELD Craig, one last thing, now right at the outset, I called your story monumental and it will certainly be historic, but it broke on Monday. By Tuesday, it had already disappeared from the aggregation home pages like Google News. Vanished. Now, I'd say it was swamped by impeachment, but the Peloton exercise bike commercial kerfuffle after two weeks was still front and center. What is happening?
CRAIG WHITLOCK Well, actually, to be honest, in the reality of the present day news cycles and short attention spans, I was surprised by how much of a court our publication of these articles did seem to strike with readers. Now, will people tune out? Will they move on to the next shiny thing in a day? You know, yeah, I'm sure that's inevitable. But I think people won't forget this, I think this was a particular moment in time when people's perceptions of the war, which were always skeptical of what was going on in Afghanistan. I think this reinforced a lot of people's suspicions and I think it will be hard for the public. I would think it would be very difficult for anyone in Washington to look at the war the same way and cast it in the same terms as they did.
BOB GARFIELD Craig, thank you so much.
CRAIG WHITLOCK Thank you for your interest.
BOB GARFIELD Craig Whitlock is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Coming up, the world's biggest archive of cable news, a “Do It Yourself” project. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Among those Americans watching from home as the Afghanistan war unraveled on TV was a retired librarian named Marion Stokes. In her Philadelphia apartment, the news was always on, on several screens, for posterity’s sake. Because between 1979 and her death in 2012, her training as a librarian and her convictions as a lifelong communist activist had prompted Stokes to undertake a radical archiving project. Eventually, 70,000 tapes containing more than three decades of 24-hour TV news. About five years ago, documentarian Matt Wolf got wind of the story.
MATT WOLF I reached out to Marion Stokes’ son, Michael, and I went down to Philadelphia to meet him. When I arrived at Rittenhouse Square, it was a very tony, fancy building and that surprised me. Inside Marion's apartment was her son, Michael, and her personal secretary, Frank, boxing up hundreds of Macintosh computers in their original boxing. And that was pretty surprising, too. So we went across the street to have lunch at the restaurant where Marion would have her daily martini, and Frank and Michael started to cry. And I realized that this isn't just a story about an unprecedented archive, it was an emotionally intense family's story.
BOB GARFIELD A story about family and also mass media hegemony, race activism, decades of history, psychological pathology. All of which is contained within a new documentary called Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, directed by Wolf. He went in search of the why: Why this archive? Why Marion? And then he came away with his own guesses as to the answers. He also took on the mystery of our own news media. The story of us and how we told ourselves that story, minute by minute for years and years. Matt, welcome to the show.
MATT WOLF Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD I'd say the only thing missing is a stakeout and a chase scene, but there's one of those too. At what point did you realize what was hidden in all those hundreds and hundreds of cartons?
MATT WOLF Well, I went about looking for specific things, whether it was a epoch-defining event or an idiosyncratic thing, and, you know, anything from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the collapse of the Miss America stage. And I would find those on tapes. But I would scan through them quickly, seven, eight hour-long tapes. And I would find incredibly surprising things. Things with great historical irony.
NEWS REPORT Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. He was brought face to face with things he personally had said, for example, that the NAACP and the Civil Liberties Union are un-American organizations.
JEFF SESSIONS These comments that you could say about a commie organization or something, I may have said something like that. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF But I also found things that really represent the texture of the recent past.
NEWS REPORT Turn on the machine, pour out almost all the water and then go...
NEWS REPORT ...a tape of yesterday afternoon’s shooting, the assailant fell to the ground, the president was immediately pushed in… [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF Strange advertisements and public service announcements, local news and talk shows and these things I think reflect not only events, but they show us who we are and how the world of today came to be.
BOB GARFIELD Marion was a very rich lady living on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, the poshest of neighborhoods. But she got there through a very unlikely route.
MATT WOLF Marion was born in Philadelphia and she was orphaned and adopted. She grew up poor and later in her life became involved in the Communist Party.
She was the Philadelphia chairman for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, an organization started by the Communist Party to raise awareness about the Cuban revolution. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF After her divorce from her first husband, she was a single parent. Fortuitously, she got a job at a local community center called Wellsprings, and quickly she became the co-producer of their local television program called Input.
NEWS REPORT When people are killed on the courthouse steps, for going up to register to vote, how can you expect black people to have faith in the Democratic process? If you want us to have faith in the democratic process, make it work.
All of us together, not “I make it work.” But will you join me?
No, you make it work! You keep me out of your institutions--
I keep you out?
No you have kept me out of your institutions, your institutions… [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The decades of taping shows other that input began, well when it was possible after Betamax came on the scene and in November 1979.
NEWS REPORT From ABC in New York. This is World News Tonight. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage at our embassy in Tehran.
NEWS REPORT The U.S. embassy in Tehran has been invaded and occupied by Iranian students.
NEWS REPORT They said the takeover had been expressed blessing of the Ayatollah Khomeini. [END CLIP]
MICHAEL STOKES My mother was very suspicious of the official stories about the Iranian hostage crisis, and she became obsessed with the media coverage. She felt that important information was being lost as the story evolved. She was saying, “Well, we've got to get this. Nobody else is going to keep this.”
NEWS REPORT Good evening. Some of the rhetoric coming out of Iran today was reminiscent of the early weeks of this crisis. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF As this 444 days saga unfolded. Marion was rightly concerned that important information was being lost or that the ideological predilections of the producers of this news was coloring their depiction of the events. She saw that the nature of the media was changing--
MICHAEL STOKES During that crisis, she hit record and she never stopped.
MATT WOLF She had multiple televisions playing simultaneously with VCRs, seven to eight-hour recordings, and when the tapes ran out and it was pandemonium, everybody in the house would be switching tapes and hitting record.
BOB GARFIELD Exactly to what end? Was she looking for smoking guns of careless bias? Did she have plans to turn these hundreds of thousands of hours of tape into a scholarly study or a document of indictment? Why?
MATT WOLF Marion wasn't interested in editorializing or selecting specific things to document. Her goal was to capture everything. And that is ultimately the work of the archivist, because we don't know what's going to be important in the future. And she knew that networks were discarding their archives. So she had the impulse to capture everything because she knew that in a sense, archives create futures.
BOB GARFIELD Marion Stokes was obsessive. And as your film makes clear, also controlling and arguably paranoid. Over the years, she became estranged from almost everyone in her life but her husband, John Stokes. So it's easy, at least in the beginning of the film, to dismiss her as just some sort of crackpot. But not so fast. Here's a cut from Northwestern University television scholar Lynn Spiegel about that reflex to dismiss someone like Marion Stokes.
LYNN SPIEGEL When you have an institution like a museum or a university and they begin to collect, you don't tend to question why they're doing it. There must be a rational reason. But when you are one lone person and especially a woman, then you're considered to be an outlier. We shouldn't ascribe rationality to those in power and irrationality to those without. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF Marion's an African-American woman. She was pursuing an unprecedented project that others didn't see value in. Of course, she would operate outside of the mainstream establishment of academia. She was a true radical in the sense that she saw things that other people didn't see. She was excluded from established institutions. So she took matters into her own hand and pursued her project on her own terms, privately.
BOB GARFIELD Now, there's a little footnote to this story. If there's such thing as a cult of Apple, Marion Stokes was like cultist number 14.
NEWS REPORT Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels. Troublemakers. The round tags in the square holds. The ones who see things differently. On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh and you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF When the Macintosh personal computer was released, Marion saw an opportunity to democratize the production of media. She admired Steve Jobs’ vision and maybe related to him. He was difficult and demanding, but had a sense of laser focus on his project and like Marion, he too was an orphan. And so not only did Marion invest early and invest heavily in Apple stock, she collected every single product ever released by the company during her lifetime.
BOB GARFIELD It was in every corner of her apartment.
MATT WOLF There were also tens of thousands of books, thousands of newspapers. It was kind of a vault of media and information behind closed doors.
BOB GARFIELD Now, this wasn't just one four-bedroom apartment, she had other properties to store the fruits of her collecting.
MATT WOLF Oh, yes. Marion had multiple homes investing in Apple stock and making other savvy decisions about technology stocks and real estate really enhanced her wealth and made this project possible.
BOB GARFIELD She died on December 14th, 2012.
MICHAEL STOKES Yes, she was sitting up, they propped her up, and she just looking very, very peaceful. But on the news, there was this horrific story unfolding.
NEWS REPORT In this small, sleepy New England town of Newtown, Connecticut, at this elementary school. The call came in to 911, right around 9:30 this morning. A gunman walked in this school. The latest number we have… [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Is there any record of her thoughts about the nature of the material she collected and its effects on the audience?
MATT WOLF You know, I think people have an impulse to pathologize Marion as some sort of compulsive amateur historian. And I wanted to be very careful not to use psychological explanations to discount her project. But I do think that you have to think about the trauma involved in watching television 24 hours a day for three decades.
MARION STOKES And I just wonder if this is related in any way to the whole acceptance of violence and killing as an everyday thing. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF Marion spoke on Input about violence. She did multiple episodes that were advertised, “Violence for breakfast.”
MARION STOKES Those in power are able to write their own history from their own bias. I think an extension of that certainly would be our discussion today of violence, which we may not call violence, but which is a large-scale violation of the human being potential and humanity and dignity. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF And I think that was a preoccupation for her, not just the representation of violence, but a larger kind of structural violence that's at play in society, the system that generates and produces the news and that impacts public opinion.
BOB GARFIELD You mentioned that she made no effort to editorialize or to draw conclusions about the content. The archive was about itself. But as a documentarian, you had a very different approach. You used many clips from the archive as a sort of time capsule of late-twentieth century events. You did get to draw some conclusions. What are they?
MATT WOLF I was just as interested in the depiction of world-defining events as really marginal things that flow through television on a daily basis.
NEWS REPORT The odds of twins living a century are said to be 1 in 700 million. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF Really the detritus of popular culture.
NEWS REPORT She wanted to be buried in her beloved Cadillac. After the 62-year-old woman died of cancer on Thursday, she got her wish. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF Things that end up in the trash can of history.
NEWS REPORT Little Jessica McClure. She is 18 months old. She has been trapped in a narrow pipe 20 feet below ground in Midland, Texas, for nearly 24 hours now. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF If anything, I was most concerned with trying to show how television has shaped the world of today. I mean, we live in this era of so-called fake news. And I think Marion was very concerned about that kind of phenomenon emerging as the 24-hour news cycle took hold. And I was thinking a lot about why is this archive significant now? And I tried to track threads through politics and history that spoke to our current moment.
NEWS REPORT There’s a second kind of thing that the CIA does, and that's that it takes secret action to change what goes on in another country. This could involve giving money to help a candidate win an election, it might involve aiding in the overthrow of a government we think is a threat to us. It could even mean arranging or trying to arrange an assassination. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF Or tracking the depiction of police brutality as presented on television.
NEWS REPORT Granted, the video doesn't tell you everything, but it sure looks like the deputies were using excessive force. And it sure looks like the Rodney King beating all over again. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF There is a few instances of people discussing the threat of ideological interests impacting media. The Phil Donahue talk show with major newscasters talking about undue corporate influence on the news.
NEWS REPORT We are owned by larger and larger companies. It doesn't make me a radical to be somewhat concerned about white male boardroom view will be even more a feature. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF This conversation was percolating, that it was before the advent of cable news with its ideological slants, and people were anticipating the kind of moment we're in now, in which the truth is under attack. And in a lot of ways I think it's important to look at Marion's project as a form of activism. She was recording and capturing everything because she felt that important information was being lost and she wanted to protect the truth.
BOB GARFIELD Well, whatever ultimate truth can be drawn from this vast collection, there was someone who recognized it. The Internet Archive, that Bay Area organization that in many ways is cataloging the entirety of the internet. They understood the value of the tape and they have undertaken to digitize the whole kit and caboodle for posterity. Never mind the notes that Marion Stokes wrote on the spines of the VHS’s, this is a monumental database problem. Hundreds of thousands of hours of programming. But they had an astonishingly lucky break.
MICHAEL STOKES When we sent them the test box, they immediately began to realize that the early days of my mother's taping were also the early days of closed captioning. They can use the closed captioning as a tag that lets people know and search what's happening in the actual videotape.
MATT WOLF So as the Internet Archive digitized as her tapes, they'll be able to associate closed captioning with it so that people can search this enormous corpus of media by keyword. And that's a real game changer. I mean, we normally look at analog media linearly. We have to screen through the entire tapes, as I did. But it's a real game changer to be able to look through a giant pool of media by keyword.
BOB GARFIELD And when will we actually have access as consumers to the Stokes collection?
MATT WOLF The Internet Archive is at the earliest stages of this vast projects, but there's urgency to it. People forget how fragile VHS tape is as a medium. It's literally disintegrating day by day.
BOB GARFIELD All right, Matt. Throughout this process, you were in the position of mediating Marion Stokes. Did you think at all about what she might think of your project?
MATT WOLF Of course, I've made films about a number of people who aren't around to speak for themselves, and it's a real dilemma. What's the fair way to tell somebody's story? It wouldn't have been fair for me to make some sort of rose-tinted portrait that ignored the fact that her behavior was dysfunctional and that it was hurtful to other people. But I wanted to assume that there was real meaning and conviction behind this project. And I recognized her as visionary. Marion was a private person who didn't want to be known. But I do know that she told Michael, her son, at the end of her life, “who's going to tell my story?” And in a lot of ways, I took that as a cue. What she did is of historical significance and it's newsworthy itself.
NEWS REPORT Marion Stokes hit record way back, in 1977. She didn't stop until December of 2012. All of that history arriving today by truck at an archive in San Francisco from Stokes home. [END CLIP]
MATT WOLF I don't think Marion could have ever imagined that herself and her project would be broadcast on CNN alongside all the news that she was capturing.
BOB GARFIELD It's a bit meta in a way that makes my head hurt.
MATT WOLF I don't think of it that way. I think Marion took on the totality of the media through the lens of her very peculiar and very unexpected story. I think there's insights to be gleaned about where we are today and how we got here.
BOB GARFIELD Matt, thank you very much.
MATT WOLF Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Matt Wolf is the director of Recorder: Marion Stokes Project.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, John Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Charlotte Gartenberg, who’s leaving us this week. Thank you so much, Charlotte, and good luck with everything. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Josh Hahn and Sam Bair. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.