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Appellate Judge James A. Stewart's Blog

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart • Location: Butler, PA
• Member since: June 2005
• 440 full reviews
• 308 small claims

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1984: The rat in the face forever
June 22nd, 2013 2:31AM

I've been reading about the recent interest in 1984.

The thing I took most from the novel was the "rat-in-the-face moment," that moment of absolute terror or absolute desire for freedom from the captors. In the novel, Winston Smith was confronted with his greatest fear -- a rat -- about to dine on his face, and was willing to betray even his beloved Julia.

I'd suspect that feeling comes a lot in Winston Smith's world, even without the actual rat in the actual face. Freedom is absolutely that important and -- let's face it -- a world where every move is monitored and even trivial thoughts could be punished at someone's caprice would be intolerable to any of my readers, I'm sure. People who faced that kind of monitoring -- something that's even impossible in an actual prison today, apparently -- would face the daily rat in the face of health fears, since they'd realize that the stress could be affecting their hearts and giving them stomach problems (the bits of actual information that filtered through would only be making matters worse, of course).

If someone tried that kind of imprisonment -- keeping watch on someone totally, even in a seemingly open environment -- would anyone care? Would they join in, believing it justified (remember, only the captors would be able to speak for the prisoner) or even -- cruel as it sounds -- believing it funny? It's true we have a lot of communication streams today, but all can be monitored more easily than that simple rotary phone could have years ago. Just being able to watch someone's email and Mapquest searches could leave that person an utter prisoner.

I'd expect that prisoner to be frantic, always nervous, desperate for a moment of freedom from monitoring, just to calm their nerves, not even to think toward a free, better future. That person would be desperate to communicate any thought or feeling, knowing their words and thoughts would otherwise always be filtered through their captors.

I'd hope that person could not be kept prisoner forever, since a simple act of kindness could free them, at least in this society. Who knows? So could a simple act of defiance, such as a blog post.

I suppose a person who has been made to feel a rat-in-the-face moment or two or ten might turn out stronger, though, if actually granted their freedom.

It's the horror story of thrillers for ages, but in a world where it's possible, we should always be vigilant. After all, if anyone is monitored like that, we all could be.

Michael Palin's New Europe
January 28th, 2008 12:41PM

Just saw a little notice at the bottom of the TV screen. Michael Palin's New Europe begins on the Travel Channel tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern. Considering that they've advertised the new season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations at every break, I'm surprised I didn't catch any ads for Palin before.

Independent Lens premieres college newspaper documentary Tuesday, December 11
December 10th, 2007 10:00AM

If you want to see how the media will evolve in a changing world, the best place to see it is in a college newspaper office.

That’s the view of filmmaker Aaron Matthews, who tracked the staff of Penn State’s Daily Collegian through the 2004-05 academic year for his documentary, The Paper, Matthews shot around 350 hours of film for the 78-minute documentary, spending nearly every day of two semesters in the Collegian office in downtown State College, Pa.

The Paper is scheduled to premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens series on Tuesday, December 11. Please check your listings for the time in your area.

“One of the reasons I was interested in covering young people as journalists was that it offered a chance to look at the media in a new light. The New York Times wouldn’t have held the same interest for me. … Because they’re students learning, it forces viewers into the position of young student journalists,” he said.

“College journalists struggle with the media’s ethical questions for the first time in their lives. I just thought it would make for exciting cinema,” Matthews said.

As the Collegian staff dealt with ongoing issues that included criticism of their coverage of campus race-relations issues--one scene in the movie features a discussion between Editor James Young and a leader of Penn State’s Black Caucus who suggests that the student journalists hype up events (he mentions a press conference that was referred to as a “rally” in print) and doubt his accounts of racism on campus--and problems between the paper’s sports department and the Penn State sports information office, the editors spent the year struggling to cope with a circulation decline.

When I saw The Paper at a recent screening, the documentary was personal to me. I was one of the students who “majored in Collegian” while attending Penn State in the late 1980s. I still remember laying out news pages on dummy sheets and sending type, not completed pages designed on the computer, to the composition room. The people I was seeing on screen were just like me and the people I spent my school days with, albeit under a bit more pressure--a year at Penn State now tops $20,000, the long hours spent at the Collegian have inched upward, and the job market’s more uncertain. Even the knowledge that they’ll always see fellow students reading their work (or at least a paragraph or two before scanning for coupons) in the dining hall over breakfast isn’t as sure. When you’ve actually spent time in the shoes of the people in a documentary, the experience is fascinating and unsettling.

The circulation decline, which came in spite of increased Penn State enrollment and the availability of free copies throughout the campus, was the issue which weighed most heavily on the 2004-05 class. The student journalists were concerned with making the front page brighter with shorter reads, as you’d find in USA Today, and did experiments with the fly-on-the-wall experience of reality TV, in one case following a theater troupe through auditions to capture emotions and reactions. Despite some objection in the newsroom, the Collegian started a page covering sex and relationships. “They were desperate to try to turn things around,” Matthews said. None of these steps made much of a dent in those circulation numbers, though.

What did start to reverse the circulation decline was controversy. When the Collegian printed a letter to the editor condemning gay and lesbian students, it became an issue in itself, with gay and lesbian students protesting the newspaper and area radio and TV stations picking up the story. “This sequence is really about the media culture we’re living in, the way stories kind of reverberate. Suddenly, the newspaper finds itself the subject of the media. It’s a modern-day phenomenon,” Matthews said.

“The students were a little swept up in it when it first happened – it all happened so quickly,” he said. “They’re a little more media savvy that way; they’ve grown up with the twenty-four/seven news cycle. … That’s another part of the film: students struggling with what is news and how to cover it.”

Despite the extra pressure students and student journalists face today, the Collegian staffers Matthews met were optimistic about their future. “There were times when they--especially the editor-in-chief--take it really tough. He’s really sensitive--embattled--about the circulation issue,” Matthews said, “but they’re hopeful about their future--the future of writing for a living--and about their mission as journalists. They debated really tough issues--black-white relations, the lack of diversity in their newsroom, the lack of access to people in power. They weren’t resigned to it; they were really engaged in these issues.”

Matthews kept in touch with five of the students featured after the 2004-05 academic year. Two are still in journalism; Editor-in-Chief James Young worked as a police reporter after graduation, but has gone on to seek a graduate degree in urban planning.

How did Matthews choose his subjects? “I decided, probably the way journalists decide on their subjects. I looked at people who were willing to share their stories,” he said. “I looked at people who were dynamic and articulate--and thoughtful. They were also covering issues reflective of national media issues.”

How did the students featured react to the documentary? “One of my credos is that I show my films to all of the main characters involved first … They said pretty universally that this is an honest, accurate portrait of what went on,” Matthews said.

Although there’s one scene that shows the staff cracking open champagne bottles at an end-of-the-year celebration, Matthews didn’t follow the students outside the newsroom. Viewers won’t see much of the drinking and partying that many associate with campus life; that’s a choice of both Matthews and the students featured.

“One aspect that appealed to me was that it was a chance to do a film that wasn’t Animal House or Girls Gone Wild. It shows a side of college life that’s real and exists, students who work hard and are committed. It’s kind of like a nerd college documentary. It’s a side of college life that we never get to see. College in America is portrayed as a wild, crazy place and there’s a large section of the population committed to working really hard and studying, putting out an earnest product,” he said.

Like the students he followed, Matthews is optimistic about the future of The Daily Collegian. “One difference on college campuses is that they’re more self-contained. News about a college, you can only really get from one source. When they report on the issues people care about – like the letter controversy – circulation does go up. People can still count on The Daily Collegian because it covers news you can only get in The Daily Collegian.”

You can't see this on your TV ...
September 13th, 2007 11:26AM

... in case you didn't know, because it's brought to you on R-A-D-I-O. Or P-O-D-C-A-S-T. (That's a paraphrase of Stan Freberg's theme song, by the way.)

Since Monday, Sept. 10, BBC 7 has been rerunning the Doctor Who audio dramas. They're running five days a week, but I'm not sure for how long. The shows appear on the BBC 7 Web site and stay for six days under the "Listen Again" feature:


You'll find a lot of good stuff there if you browse. They're also in the midst of a Groucho Marx tribute (see Sundays and Mondays).

Cool Jets
April 23rd, 2007 12:28AM

Seeing all the Doctor Who discussion on the forum, I thought some of our DVD Verdict readers might like an introduction to one of the Doctor's predecessors -- explorer Jet Morgan.

If you go to the BBC 7 online -- www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7 -- and check out the Saturday "Listen Again" feature, you can hear a classic episode of Journey Into Space.

Each season is a 20-episode serial. The first couple of episodes have already been aired, but it should be easy enough to follow. In "World in Peril," Jet and his team have returned from Mars, only to find out that Mars is invading Earth.

Oh -- That Fall Season
September 20th, 2006 11:31AM

Woke up this morning to hear the Weather Channel desk jockeys discussing the new fall season. They're talking about autumn leaves, chillier temperatures, and allergy flareups. It sounds like a chilly fall coming up. Too bad we can't cancel it and plug in reruns of summer -- or at least a warmer spring.

One last Mike Douglas showing
August 11th, 2006 1:27PM

Not to be confused with current movie star Michael Douglas, former variety show host Mike Douglas passed away early this morning.

Since his show went off the air in 1982, he's only a dim memory to me and others in Generation X, but his many obituaries online note that he was a singer with a few hits to his credit, like "Old Lamplighter," and the singing voice of Prince Charming in Cinderella (http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/cinderella.php).

At his show's site, http://www.themikedouglasshow.com, you'll see an extensive list of guests from his 21 years on the air, including both Letterman and Leno.

Wishing for a very Terry Pratchett Christmas ...
July 27th, 2006 12:04AM

A couple of weeks ago, I saw online that one of my Christmas wishes from the DVD Verdict letters last week came true: The Discworld, the flat medieval world where everything's just a little bit skewed from the prolific Terry Pratchett's comic novels, will finally see live-action life on screen -- at least on the small screen.

It's a British TV production of Hogfather, in which Death takes a different holiday, subbing for the jolly guy who brings gifts on the Discworld. Trouble is, it's a British TV production, which means that it isn't guaranteed to show up Stateside.

So this year I'm starting my Christmas wish list early. Please, Sci-Fi Channel, will you pick up Hogfather this December?

"Lost" and found
July 6th, 2006 9:40AM

I'm still trying to figure out how the nominators misplaced Lost, but I did notice that The Girl in the Cafe, a nice little HBO movie starring Bill Nighy and Kelly McDonald, got some nominations. If you're not familiar with it, you can check out my review here:


An embedded pop-culture reference
April 10th, 2006 8:36PM

Amid the embedded traitors on this week's 24, I caught an embedded pop-culture reference. The woman who reveals Jack's whereabouts and sets up the big confrontation was named Evelyn Martin. If you recall your Rockford Files, Evelyn was the real first name of "Angel" Martin, who always revealed Jimbo's whereabouts and set up the big confrontation.

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