Yesterday, I saw a tweet that seemed so obviously wrong, it made me wonder if it was just clickbait.
But after digging through Google, YouTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion, C-SPAN, and the Twitter archives myself, it seemed to be true: an iconic moment of ’90s political pop culture appeared to be completely missing from the internet.
Boxers or Briefs
If you were alive in the early ’90s, there’s a good chance you remember this moment.
During MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign coverage in the early ’90s, Bill Clinton promised to return to MTV if elected by the channel’s young voters. As promised, a little over a year into his first term, he appeared on MTV’s Enough is Enough on April 19, 1994, a town hall-style forum with 200 16- to 20-year-olds focused on violence in America, and particularly the 1994 crime bill being debated at the time.
Toward the end of the 90 minute broadcast, during a series of rapid-fire audience questions, 17-year-old Tisha Thompson asked a question that seemed to surprise and embarrass Clinton:
Q. Mr. President, the world’s dying to know, is it boxers or briefs? [Laughter] [Applause]
Clinton: Usually briefs. [Laughter] I can’t believe she did that.
That question got a ridiculously outsized amount of attention at the time. The Washington Post called him the “Commander In Briefs.” It was covered in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and countless others. It was the subject of late-night talk show monologues, and Clinton himself joked about it at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner later that week.
Over the following years, the “boxers or briefs” question became the “Free Bird” of the campaign trail, posed to Newt Gingrich (“that is a very stupid question, and it’s stupid for you to ask that question”), Bernie Sanders (“briefs”), and then-candidate Barack Obama: “I don’t answer those humiliating questions. But whichever one it is, I look good in ’em!”
Nearly 30 years later, the original clip is shockingly hard to find online. Someone on Reddit linked to a version of the video on YouTube, but the account was terminated. C-SPAN has a different clip from the show, as well as a searchable transcript, but not the clip itself.
As of right now, before I publish this post, it’s extremely hard to find online — but not impossible, because I found it, and here it is.
How I Found It
Among its voluminous archives of web pages, books, and other media, the Internet Archive stores a huge number of U.S. TV news videos, clips from over 2,470,000 shows since 2009. You can search the closed captions, and view short video clips from the results.
Their search engine is a little quirky, but more than good enough to find several news talk shows who rebroadcast the clip over the last few years, typically to poke fun at Bill Clinton. I searched for the exact quoted phrases from the original interview, and found 14 clips that mentioned it from shows like Hardball with Chris Matthews, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.
Only one of the clips included the full question and answer, and didn’t overlay any graphics on the video, from an episode of Up w/Steve Kornicki on March 15, 2014.
The Internet Archive will let you stream the short clips, but there’s no option to download the video itself, and unfortunately, it frequently won’t show the exactly the moment you’re searching for. (This is probably an issue with alignment of closed captions and source videos.)
That said, you can edit the timestamp in the video URL. Every video result page has a URL with something like “/start/2190/end/2250” in the URL. This is the start and end timestamp in seconds, which you can adjust manually. (There appears to be a three-minute limit to clip length, so if you get an error, make sure you’re not requesting longer than that.)
Once you’ve found what you like, you can download it using Chrome Dev Tools:
- First, start and then pause the video.
- In Chrome, use Option-Command-C to open the element inspector in Chrome Dev Tools.
- Highlight and click on the paused video.
- In the Chrome Dev Tools window, right-click on the <video> tag and choose Open In New Tab.
- The video will now be in a dedicated tab. Hit Ctrl-S (Command-S on Mac) to save the video, or select “Save Page As…” from the File menu.
After that, I just cropped the clip and uploaded it to my site, and YouTube for good measure. If you have a better quality version, please send it to me.
That’s it! The Internet Archive is an amazing and under-utilized resource, poorly indexed in Google, but absolutely filled with incredible things.
On May 9, 2023, Paramount announced it was shutting down MTV News permanently, 36 years after it was started. This led to a bunch of tributes and retrospectives, and many of them link to this blog post or the copy of the video I put up on YouTube.
The Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of MTV News talked to Doug Herzog, who was MTV’s first News Director and went on to become president of Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, overseeing all of MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central, among others. He casually dropped this bomb, which I don’t think has ever been reported anywhere:
HERZOG: It’s Choose or Lose — which won a Peabody in 1992 — that ultimately led to, you know, Bill Clinton coming on MTV and talking about “boxers or briefs.” That question was planted by MTV, by the way.
The young woman who asked the question, Tisha Thompson, worked at MTV News, so that tracks! I asked her if she was already an intern or employee at MTV News when she asked the question, which seems likely. I’ll update this post if I get a response.
What’s any possible reason Google wouldn’t be better at indexing the Internet Archive? It seems absurdly obvious that would be a good source to comb through every possible way.
Looking at it a bit closer, it seems like Google’s indexing of those video pages is actually pretty good… But their ranking algorithm never seems to return Internet Archive pages and I don’t know why. (This is, anecdotally, a common issue with Google and large legacy archives of content like Reddit and Metafilter. You have to add “site:reddit.com” to see results from old pages, even when they’re far more relevant than “fresher” content.)
Hell yeah, bravo.
Thank you, and strong work!
I wrote a couple of things last year about searching for lost media, which involved a bit more digging but does also make use of the Internet Archive to fact check something as well as saved searches on ebay to recover the Fantastic Adventures of Adam Ant :
Also, another one which had me digging through old torrent sites and trackers for a radio show:
The girl asking the question grew up to be a multiple time Emmy award winning investigative reporter.
I mentioned in the post that it’s Tisha Thompson, who went on to work at MTV News and later become an award-winning investigative reporter for ESPN.