Television news does not beg to be remembered. It is made to feed the hot moment, for right now. It’s an ever-spewing tap of hot and cold (or left and right) running talk. Slow it down, play it back, or think about it too much, and it can all fall apart. That’s what Jon Stewart built his career upon.
Now you can do it too. The folks at the incredible Internet Archive have just released an amazing new resource. It’s the last 3 years of U.S. TV news, in a searchable format, online and free to use. Every aspect of this is astonishing.
Firstly, think about the scope of the project. No, it’s not literally all TV news produced in America in the last three years, but it’s pretty damn good. Twenty stations have been recorded—that’s 350,000 episodes of television. Second, all of this is searchable. As a journalist who has spent, I’m guessing, months of my life transcribing audio interviews into text, I couldn’t figure out how they did this. My mind conjured up some vastly distributed crowdsourcing effort—a “mechanical Turk” operation where thousands of volunteer participants transcribed a minute or two of news footage when they had a minute to spare. Turns out, it’s nothing so fancy. Closed-captioning provides a more or less exact written record of every word spoken on the news, linked to timecode. Ingenious or obvious? Who cares, it’s awesome. Finally, the whole archive is accessible anywhere in the world via the web, for free. Hallelujah!
As we move forward in time, the TV news archive will move backwards, adding year after year of the past , until, hopefully, it reaches the dawn of television. Undoubtedly, there will be snags: closed-captioning only became standardized in 2002. Transcribing the decades of news preceding this will be an epic task. But it’s a worthy one.
Politicians and pundits, acclimatized to the ever-quickening news cycle, expect only to be held accountable for what came out of their mouths in the last few hours, not the last few years. Thanks to YouTube, hobbyists with PVRs and an appetite for “gotcha!,” this has been changing a bit, and clips instantly identifiable as embarrassing are quickly preserved as viral videos. But unearthing an inconsistency in what a candidate says today on national news with what he said three years ago on a local station—that’s an extraordinarily difficult research task that just became easy.
So who’s going to build one of these in Canada?
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.