The first celebrity I ever met was actor William Shatner.
It was back in the 1980s. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time. Shatner was making an appearance at a car show in Denver that I went to with my family. I stood in a long line for nearly two hours to get a chance to talk to the pop culture icon who boldly went where no man had gone before aboard the starship Enterprise, and fearlessly clung to countless hoods of moving cars on TJ Hooker.
I spent most of my time in line trying to figure out what I was going to say to him. I didn’t want to blow the opportunity, after all. At that impressionable age, there are few people more important in the world than celebrities. And Shatner wasn’t just any celebrity. He was a bonafide action hero! So, I felt it was imperative for him to like me. At the very least, I was determined not say anything weird that would make him not like me.
I decided that I would first ask him for his autograph (a no-brainer), and while he was giving it to me, I would then ask him something about one of the Star Trek films. I don’t recall exactly what my planned question was, but it was something easy – something I probably already knew the answer to. Again, I just wanted the meeting to be a positive experience.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
I was immediately thrown off my game when Shatner denied my request for an autograph. I wasn’t expecting that. I had just assumed that that’s what celebrities did at public appearances: They signed autographs.
“No, no,” he artificially chuckled as he held up his hands and shook his head to fend me off.
Someone on his security detail quickly stepped forward and explained to me, “Mr. Shatner won’t be signing any autographs today.”
My consolation prize was the extension of Shatner’s hand to shake mine. This did not go smoothly because I was still holding the pen and sheet of paper I had brought with me for the autograph. He seemed annoyed as I tried to shuffle the items to my other hand, and before I knew it, one of his security guards was nudging me off the stage to make room for the next person in line. I tried to ask my question in parting, but it went unheard or most likely ignored.
Yes, William Shatner blew me off.
Feeling kind of embarrassed, I spent the next ten minutes or so watching more of the meet and greet from afar. I observed Shatner’s interactions with other fans, and I couldn’t help but conclude that he held a general contempt for just about everyone he met. At least that’s how it appeared.
He didn’t really make eye contact with any of them, and he clearly had no interest in what they had to say. He wouldn’t sign autographs or pose for pictures. Underneath a forced grin, he gave off a vibe that his fans were beneath him. Occasionally, he even appeared to be whispering snarky comments, about some of the fans, to the security guard standing next to him.
What struck me more than anything else, however, was that none of the people who walked up to meet him seemed to notice this. They were absolutely ecstatic just to be in the man’s presence, and were gushing over him and singing his praises. These people, for the most part, were Trekkies – the super-fans who didn’t just like Star Trek, but lived Star Trek. To them, Shatner didn’t merely portray Captain Kirk. He was Captain Kirk. And I think that’s why it was easy for Shatner not to respect them.
This relationship was later parodied hilariously by Shatner himself in one of Saturday Night Live’s all-time greatest skits, but I also see it on display quite often in the current day. It’s the same relationship that the news media has with President Obama.
When it comes to this president, the news media are Trekkies. They’re completely immersed in Obama’s presidency. They are invested in him, they are defensive of him, and they are his most loyal fans. Most in the media don’t see Barack Obama as just another president. To them, he’s an icon. He’s a brand.
That’s why we see all of those awkward press conference moments, like when reporter Jeff Zeleny asked the president what had “enchanted” him most about the presidency, or when the Chicago Tribune’s Christi Parsons fawningly told the president, “I’ve never seen you lose.”
It’s the reason why reporters go out of their way to set up the president to bash Republicans, like when CNN’s Dan Lothian presented Obama with a multiple choice question of whether the GOP was “uninformed”, “out of touch”, or “irresponsible”. That would have been the equivalent of a Trekkie asking Leonard Nimoy why people who think Star Wars is better than Star Trek are ‘so stupid’.
It’s the explanation for why most people in the news media are reluctant to ask the tough questions of our president. Just like a Trekkie wouldn’t ask Walter “Chekov” Koenig or Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols why they’ve never been seen in other television or film projects aside from Star Trek, the news media would rather not insult Obama. They want Obama to like them, just as I wanted William Shatner to like me years ago.
Rather than ask uncomfortable questions, the media would much rather pitch softball ones for which they already know what the canned answers will be. The result is that we know more about the president’s thoughts on gay marriage than we do about what happened in Benghazi. We know more about the president’s plans for achieving “tax fairness” than we do his plans for actually fixing the economy. We know how he feels about NBA player Jason Collins, but we haven’t a clue how he feels about Kermit Gosnell, the doctor accused of multiple murders during late-term abortions.
You know, it shouldn’t be a news story in itself when a reporter actually asks our president a tough question. But right now, it is.
And just like with what I observed with William Shatner many years ago, I don’t believe President Obama respects the media. It doesn’t matter that they are largely responsible for his success and popularity. It doesn’t matter that they are incredibly loyal to him. Obama has to recognize that his fans in the media view him not as how he really is, but as how they want him to be. He’s not a man to them. He’s a super-hero! And how can anyone respect relative strangers who pledge to them their unconditional allegiance?
I had to laugh as I watched clips of journalists’ reactions to President Obama at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner. It reminded me of going to a Star Trek film in a movie theater on opening night. Everyone’s laughing hysterically and slapping their knees at even the most mundane, inside jokes. It’s uncomfortable.
Now, I hope Star Trek fans out there don’t think my intent is to bash them with this column. It’s not. I view the Trekkie culture as a fun, harmless phenomenon and I’m glad people have a good time with it.
But our news media culture should not be this way. The job of reporters if far too important to our society.
If William Shatner were on trial for a crime, how fair would it be to stock the jury with Trekkies? I think everyone would agree that it would be totally unacceptable because of how important impartiality is in our justice system.
So how, then, can there not be a problem when it comes to who’s covering the President of the United States, and conveying that information to the American public?