When John Kirk approached me on the idea of doing an interview with Alec Peters, the man who was leading the “Axanar” Star Trek film production and the defendant in a copyright infringement suit, I was not keen on it.
Not that every journalistic bone in my body didn’t want to scoop competitors on an interview no one else had … but because I knew that no matter how we handled it, Peters would go back to his isolated little social media world and spin anything he said as if Donald Trump was his mentor.
But here’s the thing: Quotes don’t lie. And I put in safeguards to ensure that Peters understood that, because after 22 years of being in this business and dealing with occasional hostile interview subjects, you learn not to touch the flame without making sure you’re wearing flame-resistant gloves.
So as managing editor Bryant Griffin and I prepped John, we made it clear that there were ground rules. Not just for his interview with Peters, but with our staff, too. Because I chose to express my opinion (and strongly) on this matter a few weeks back, I didn’t want my opinions to interfere in the story. As editor-in-chief, I have final say on all editorial content. But in a very rare move, I pulled myself out to add an extra level of making sure Peters had a fair shot.
While I would advise on the interview itself, and even questions, John (and, by extension, Bryant as editor) would have final say in the questions, how it was approached, and even how it was written. That doesn’t mean I was out of the process — it just means that I could come in and say, “Hmm, how about this?” and it didn’t just happen. It would have to be approved by Bryant. And trust me, after more than 15 years of working with Bryant, he is more than capable of telling me no (and I think can be quite fond of it sometimes).
The thing is, Bryant and I take what we do very seriously. And we trusted John in this task because we know John takes this very seriously. John hasn’t spent years in the journalistic trenches. He hasn’t written hard news. This was a new experience for him, but it started to become where we didn’t even have to guide him in the interview process — John picked it up really fast, and was off and running.
We made the ground rules to Peters quite clear, and I did insist on this because this isn’t my first rodeo with hostile interview subjects.
• Peters was reminded that this was for 1701News, a site where I am the editor-in-chief. That means that while John would lead his own interview (and choose his own questions), and Bryant was the editor in charge, I still had influence. But also, that no matter what my opinions are, my goal is always to be fair and truthful.
• This would not be a fluff piece. Meaning, this is not going to be about how Peters saves puppies from burning houses, or anything like that. This was going to be a hard news piece, addressing “Axanar” and the lawsuit that surrounds it.
• There would be no “off-the-record.” Everything Peters said would be on-the-record. Period. Off-the-record is something reporters may grant to sources from time to time, but only if those sources aren’t going to try and twist everything that transpires.
• The interview would be recorded.
Now, while 1701News landed this interview, it really could have gone to the “G&T Show,” an awesome podcast led by some great people like Terilynn Shull, Nick Minecci and Michael Medeiros, among others. However, Shull added a caveat: Before Peters could sit down and do an interview, she needed a signed letter from his attorney representing him in the copyright infringement case signing off on him doing the interview.
Why? Because just about any lawyer is going to make it clear to his or her client: Do not do interviews in the middle of a lawsuit. Period. End of story.
Shull was really going out of her way to try and protect Peters, but instead, it caused the entire interview process to break down. Which is sad because I would’ve loved to hear how Peters did against the G&T crew.
But we don’t have the same requirements at 1701News. It’s not up to us to make sure that an interview subject is following an attorney’s advice. That is up to the interview subject. They are adults, and they are capable of making their own decisions. We are not going to hold their hands.
Writing thousands of entertainment stories (and other stories) in our lifetimes, Bryant and I can kick out stories on sites like 1701News in a matter of minutes. They typically require minimal editing, although Kathleen Lang is a superior copy editor who always goes through and reminds us that we’re supposed to write these stories in English.
For bigger pieces, like this interview — especially with a writer who is not used to doing this kind of reporting — it’s a much bigger collaboration. The editing process is completely a team effort. Except in this case, my role was advisory. Many of the things I did advise were already in process because Bryant and I have done so many stories like this, so we know how they are done. And there were other things I advised that didn’t make the final cut. That’s just the way it is.
Now I did contribute two elements to the story. I talked with Suzi Marteny, an intellectual property lawyer in Tampa, who was a great source for me during my many years as a business newspaper journalist. Every quote from her came from my interview. Also, the comment from CBS/Paramount was solicited by me because I had the contacts with the studios thanks to my years of covering Star Trek. But those elements were written separately and weaved into the story by Bryant in the editing process.
Peters has taken to the Internet and very incorrectly claimed that I “hijacked” the story, and that I cut out his quotes. But I had no say in what quotes were chosen for the piece. And in a very rare move (I will likely never do something like this again), I’m going to provide the quotes — in the original order John provided them in his first draft — so that you can see exactly what was said and what Bryant had to work with as editor. For those playing along with the home game, you can compare the quotes to what was in the final story by clicking here.
“Game on. This [the lawsuit] is one more competition.”
“Well, it’s interesting. I have so many people who contact me, it’s ridiculous the amount of fans who send me positive messages. I have not had one hater message me on Facebook. They’ll talk about me elsewhere. But the message is this: ‘This is the best Star Trek we’ve seen,’ and ‘Are you OK?’ It’s very nice and I’m doing great. When I saw that article [announcing the lawsuit] in The Hollywood Reporter, I said, ‘What a great opportunity to change the way things are done.’”
“What they [CBS] said was they won’t give me any feedback to help us. They couldn’t tell us what we could do and what we couldn’t do. When we cross the line, they’ll let us know. In the past where they did have a problem with a fan film, they contacted that fan film, and only once did they ever issue a cease and desist order. But they placed phone calls. But CBS wasn’t the one who pushed the lawsuit.”
“There’s a reason why ‘Prelude to Axanar’ and ‘Axanar’ look like professional movies, because we have professionals working on them. These are professionals. They do this for a living. They’re not fans who are voice actors, or Elvis impersonators who have a hobby and have always wanted to play Captain Kirk. That’s not to knock fan films. I’m just saying, if you want volunteers, you get a certain quality. You want professionals? You’ve got to pay for them. It’s real simple.”
“It’s real simple [CBS/Paramount have sued]. Because of our quality. ‘Star Trek Continues’ is a fan film. Amateur actors, beautiful sets, well-done photography. But it’s a fan film. There’s no way you take that for a real TV show. ‘Star Trek: New Voyages’? Fan film. It looks good — well directed — but no one’s ever going to take that for a network TV show.”
“I’m not volunteering my time. I can’t do this for free. If I make minimum wage, I’m lucky. The fans who donate? They understand. They don’t have any problem with me paying myself. Let’s face it: It is all the people who are not donors who are the critics. The donors, for the most part, are the ones who get it. They see the work we put into it, they feel the love on daily basis from us. Every day we’re blogging, they know what’s going on. Unfortunately you have a lot of people who have never been in business, and they have a problem with Alec paying himself.”
“People don’t realize that CBS didn’t file the lawsuit. Paramount did. CBS is on the lawsuit because CBS is the rights holder, not Paramount. Why did Paramount file the lawsuit? Paramount doesn’t give a damn about our financials. That’s not why they’re filing this lawsuit. They’ve got a movie coming out, ‘Star Trek: Beyond.’ The trailer came out and bombed so badly that everyone I know hated. I think I’m the only one who liked it. Then there’s ‘Axanar,’ which everybody loves. That’s threatening to Paramount. So there’s a business strategy.”
“Well, we haven’t actually cast ‘Axanar’ yet. We were really just starting the casting process when the lawsuit happened, and we’re working with a professional Hollywood casting director. Tony Todd didn’t want to come back. He quoted us $14,000 a day, I think? Maybe it was $15,000. I forget at the moment. We pay a tenth of that to our stars. It was just so out of bounds.”
“Well, it’s real simple. We don’t ask anyone to work for free. They all get paid. When Richard Hatch worked on ‘Star Trek: New Voyages,’ he got paid. When Lou Ferrigno was on ‘Star Trek: Continues,’ he got paid. Actors are always getting paid. Crew? We had two Academy Award winners working on ‘Prelude to Axanar’. Now those people can go out and work for $500 a day. They’re coming to work for us for $150 a day. Is it wrong that we pay them? Well, that’s your … well, you know, if you want an amateur … you know, if you want a fan film, then go see a fan film. We’re trying to make the best Star Trek possible.”
“It’s going to have no effect on fan films. ‘Star Trek: Continues’ is starting another Kickstarter. Which is going to be real interesting because that Kickstarter, if that isn’t stopped by CBS, we can use that against them in court. That’s good for us because one of our arguments is waiver. They waived their rights because they let this go on for so long.”
“We violate CBS copyright less than any other fan film. ‘Star Trek: Continues’ and ‘Star Trek: New Voyages’ violate more than we do. We don’t call ourselves ‘Star Trek.’ We don’t use Kirk, Spock and McCoy. We don’t use the chevron. We don’t use the uniforms you’re used to seeing. We don’t use the TOS bridge or sets. Those two productions are entirely copyright infringement.”
“But this goes back to our argument about waivers. You’ve [CBS] already said that it’s OK, basically, letting these guys go. ‘Star Trek: Continues’ has raised $400,000, and you haven’t said anything about that. ‘Star Trek: Renegades’ has raised $800,000, and they use characters from the original too.”
“They celebrate Star Wars fan films. They put them on their Blu-rays. What an enlightened, brilliant perspective. Why can’t CBS do that? They say because of 50 years of established contracts. Baloney. There’s only about 10 years of difference between the two.”
“If they had put out rules, then we would have abided by them. But there are no rules. So we’re trying to make the best Star Trek we possibly can.”
“You never know in legal matters, right? What we’re hoping for is a settlement. We definitely don’t want to have to go into litigation and that’s just a road … it’s one that we’re prepared for, but we don’t want to be doing. The best way to make ‘Axanar’ is to reach a settlement with Paramount/CBS and see where it goes from there.”
So there are more quotes here than what we ended up using. But that is typical in any interview. Unless you do interviews and publish them for a living, you probably don’t know that a story typically contains a small fraction of the total conversation.
Even my discussion with Suzi Marteny included just a fraction of the total quotes she gave me. As reporters (and ultimately editors), we have to look at what quotes tell the story, and what is too much or too little. There are many discussions that never make it to the final product. But the goal is to make sure that what is presented is presented in appropriate context.
We know that was done here. Peters is not happy about what he said, but instead of blaming the messenger, he should reflect first on himself. He shouldn’t have said it. It’s not our fault for sharing what he said — that was the whole purpose of his interview with John Kirk.
Peters claimed that he has come to us with “inaccuracies.” I nor Bryant, to my knowledge, have received any such email. Peters did talk to John, who relayed some of the feedback to me. But it was primarily that Peters thought the theme was going to be something he wanted that theme to be. But here’s the thing: interview subjects don’t dictate the theme of a story, or what’s used and not used. That is up to the reporters and editors. That’s what makes it a news story, and not a press release.
Peters has been in the public eye for a long time, and has granted many interviews over the years. He knows how it works. He knew exactly who he was talking to, and what site it would end up on. He chose us because I’m sure he knew deep down that while he might not like what’s ultimately reported, at least he knows he was given a fair shot. And sorry, Peters, I know hindsight is something we wish we could ignore, but you were indeed treated quite fairly.
If you have received some blowback for your comments, then take responsibility for them. You said it. And seriously, no matter what other things you might add, you said what you said. And we’re just the messenger.