'Let 1,000 Jon Stewarts Bloom': Unleashing the Power of Archived News Media

Taking a play from Comedy Central, users can browse more than 350,000 cable news clips in a new collection from the Internet Archive.

Taking a play from Comedy Central, users can browse more than 350,000 cable news clips in a new collection from the Internet Archive.  The Internet ArchiveInside the Internet Archive in San Francisco (Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg)

Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, sees immense potential in his organization's latest effort to make the past three years of TV news broadcasts available, and searchable, online. "The focus is to help the American voter to better be able to examine candidates and issues,” Kahle told The New York Times, envisioning a proliferation of DIY Daily Show hosts. The archive searches by date, network, and the text of closed-captioned TV transcripts, so that anyone can pinpoint relevant clips (and remix them in revealing or hilarious ways). Although viewers have been able to find some news clips on YouTube (uploaded legally or otherwise), this is the first systematically organized TV archive of this scale. The Internet Archive plans to keep expanding its database of clips going back decades. 

"The best shows are made of the smallest moments," Jon Stewart explains in the Rolling Stone interview above. "You know, Donald Trump eating pizza with a fork." Comedy Central's Daily Show has elevated the practice of remixing archival clips to a razor-sharp form of political commentary. Stewart goes on to describe the once-painstaking process of incorporating archival clips into the show:

Eric Bates: How do you get the clips? Do you have just a room full of people like Clockwork Orange with their eyes [held open]?

Jon Stewart: You make it sound as though it's torture. They're bred for it. They're known as mole-people. They are allergic to light. They live in the darkness ... they're happy with their work ... but there is a worry at some point there'll be a revolt and the king of the mole-people will rise up and I would assume we'll hear the sound of breaking Tivos ... 

Bates: If the show is ever cancelled we'll know why. 

Stewart: There are a lot of archived news footage organizations now ... ways that [news] can be organized and searched for in a way that is much more efficient than what we used to do. Back in the old days, when we did the show on teletype, we used to have to wait for international and continental AP footage ... so now we're able to be more proactive ... it's easier to get at the stuff we want. 

Now, any industrious viewer with an Internet connection and basic video editing skills can join the ranks of the "mole-people" and mash together a handful of clips. 

The Internet Archive's TV-recording setupThe Internet Archive's TV-recording setup (Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg)

The Archive will continue recording the news, posting clips 24 hours after they air. With an operating budget of $12 million a year and 150 people, it's a massive undertaking. It will be fascinating to see what the hive mind of the Internet can find now that thousands of hours of footage are searchable. There's no guarantee that the results will be funny, but it is nonetheless an opportunity to examine our mass media on an unprecedented scale. Visit the site to take it for a spin yourself. 

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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