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A Misunderstanding ... And Bad Journalism?

When should reporters ask questions? When something doesn't ring correct

This really was something I went back and forth on addressing. I actually started to write this very column yesterday, but most of the way through felt it was too much "inside baseball" into the world of journalism and really wouldn't be all that interesting to readers.

Plus, I really felt the story I was going to talk about would not get any traction anywhere. I mean, sure, maybe one reporter was not able or willing to ask the right questions, or appropriately screen an implausible story from a plausible one. Others — like my good friend Terilynn Shull of the popular G&T Show podcast — had already seen straight through this story, so I felt that others would follow her lead.

But then I open up Cinemablend, and found the story repeated there. Not long after, Syfy's in-house news service, Blastr, grabbed it as well. Both presented this as a legitimately vetted news story that originated from the site TrekMovie, which repeated the claims from an albeit enthusiastic Star Trek fan who claims he is officially pitching a new Star Trek series.

Yes, despite the fact that big names like "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski and "Dead Like Me" head writer Bryan Fuller were turned away, someone we've never heard of, who was doing nothing more than a fan production that happened to match the proposed name of "Star Trek 3," was going to get that chance.

I can understand why this would be a great story. For so long, fans felt they were not being heard by the powers that be behind the Star Trek franchise. There has not been a new television series in 10 years, it seemed that the current Star Trek movie — since the departure of director J.J. Abrams for Star Wars land — was in turmoil, and who knew what was going to happen next.

And then suddenly, someone who makes decisions on the fate of Star Trek was willing to listen to (gasp!) a fan! These people were going to sit down sometime this summer with this fan, and hear what his ideas are of what could be a new Star Trek series. All because these very studio executives stumbled across his website promoting what he was then calling "Star Trek Beyond," and said, "Oh hey, what the hell? This is a good idea. We should bring this guy in."

It's a story only Hollywood could produce, right? And don't forget, a vast majority of those stories are fiction.

I can't tell you for sure if this particular story is fiction, I am still checking on that with Paramount Pictures, and we won't know until early next week, if at all. But then again, I shouldn't be the one having to do this. This should've been done by TrekMovie in the first place — before the story was published. And even then, if the great people at Cinemablend or Blastr were going to pick it up, then these sites (which tend to use more professional-level journalists) should have made the call to vet this story.

So against my better judgment, let me just fill you in on what's happening. There is a very passionate Star Trek fan out there, Michael Gummelt, who says Paramount asked him to pitch a new Star Trek series, based on his idea that was originally called "Star Trek Beyond," but now called "Star Trek Uncharted."

"I think when the rumors of the naming coincidence came out, Paramount saw my website and the passion I had for Star Trek, and the idea of it returning to TV, and for my specific concept," Gummelt told TrekMovie. "I think they felt I would gladly jump at an opportunity to come in and pitch it, which of course, I did. I'm not under any illusions about my chances (and I realize CBS has the rights to provide any new Star Trek TV series), but it's a chance of a lifetime, and I have nothing to lose."

Exciting, right? So let's say that the excitement was enough for me, as a reporter, to talk to Gummelt, and get this very statement from him as a quote. Even if he didn't share something very obvious to me (and anyone who is familiar with the ownership structure of Star Trek), it should have still been a major red flag right there: "I realize CBS has the rights to provide any new Star Trek TV series."

Although some of the details might be disputed among industry observers and fans, when Viacom split in 2006, it also split the rights to Star Trek. The movie side went to Paramount Pictures, which has since produced two movies, with another one set to go in front of the cameras later this summer. The television side, however, went to CBS Television, which continues to provide distribution channels for the more than 600 hours of Star Trek available from the original "Star Trek" to "Star Trek: Enterprise."

There has been some discussion on how a new Trek series would come about, but it seems the consensus would be that CBS would have those rights, not Paramount. If a proposed series seemed to connect with the new story universe created by Paramount, there is some belief that Paramount could get involved — but once again, that is purely speculative.

It does seem, for all intents and purposes, that Paramount could listen to all the pitches it wanted to for a new Star Trek series. But the studio has about as much right and opportunity to actually make an official series as you or I. All of that belongs to CBS, and so even if Gummelt was making an official pitch, is it really that newsworthy? He might as well pitch it to my mother — she has just as much say in a new Trek series as Paramount does.

Yet, TrekMovie never questions this. They include the aside from Gummelt, who at least recognizes that this is just an exercise in futility (if it's an exercise at all), and never takes the time to really point this out in its "exclusive" story. This should be the very first question asked — along with a call right after that to Paramount to see if the studio was indeed listening to a specific pitch, or if maybe Gummelt misunderstood an invitation that had been extended to him.

And that's me really giving Gummelt the benefit of the doubt. I don't know him at all. I never even heard his name before this story popped up in my Facebook feed from others questioning the claims being made. But I know he's passionate, and cares about Star Trek, and really would love to see it return to television. But I also know that even those with the best intentions might not be making things up — but either over-dramatizing an interaction that happened, or simply misunderstanding what is being asked.

That does happen a lot. Last year, some people at a certain cable channel were encouraging me to pitch a story idea to that cable channel, especially since these people were well aware of my recent forays into fiction work myself. These were people employed by that cable channel, but while someone might say that I've been invited to pitch, the real question is, have I?

It's tough to reject people, yet studios have to do it on a regular basis. They hear a lot of pitches, and have to say "no" far more than they say "yes." So sometimes, because they know these writers and creators are people with feelings, will try to reject kindly. Usually with something like, "Sure, we should talk about that sometime. Have your people call my people," which usually is translated as, "I gotta go. Nice meeting you, and sorry we likely won't meet again."

The person in charge of this particular division of the cable channel never approached me to pitch, even though he had ample opportunity. So maybe I did develop an idea, and say, "Hey, I would like to pitch it." And even though others at the channel might have been goading me to make a pitch — there was nothing indicating that I actually was invited to make an actual official pitch.

It reminds me of someone who once shared a panelist table at a convention with me. He introduced himself as a writer of spec scripts, and was given advice on how to submit these unsolicited scripts. Now, I have not written spec scripts (or, at least, I've never tried to give them to anyone in an official capacity), but he was sharing a lot of information that I, as someone who has covered entertainment for longer than I care to admit, knew couldn't be true.

I'm not the kind of person who would challenge someone publicly, but I also don't believe in standing by when someone is giving information that I know is inaccurate, or misrepresented. My job as a journalist is not just to repeat information that is shared with me, but it's also to vet the veracity of that information.

I could write a story about how a fan claimed he saw William Shatner booking a trip through Orbitz on his laptop rather than Priceline, and even quote him. But I'm at the very least going to reach out to Shatner's people and ask them to respond. I'm also going to ensure that there was even the possibility that the actor was exactly where the fan said he was — he could've claimed he saw him do this in Denver, when Shatner was actually in London at the time.

If I find information that counters it, I then have to make a decision on whether my readers are interested in the claim anyway — complete with the denial — or if the story is just such garbage that I am not going to even spend another second on it.

And that's where TrekMovie did a major disservice. I don't think it was intentional — the Internet is filled with self-created journalists, and it's one of the reasons why some aspects of news reporting have gone out of control. It's been frustrating for me at times, especially as someone who came up in newspaper and radio pre-Internet, and who takes his role in reporting news (and sharing opinions) very seriously. It's held me back a bit in a new world where it's all about sensationalism, and not really doing any actual work to report a story. Someone says something to us, and we just repeat it — hopefully in an accurate way.

But that's not the role of a journalist, I'm sorry. The story should be vetted, and if it can't be and a decision is made to go with it anyway, then the reader should be made aware that there are some major questions in the story.

The Gummelt claims have many questions that would have at least prompted me to hold such a story — even if it meant he would take it somewhere else to give them the "exclusive" first. He's pitching a television idea to Paramount, a studio that has no official say in what Star Trek does on television. His implication that the pitch may have come in exchange for the use of "Star Trek Beyond," which Paramount wouldn't even have to negotiate for — the studio already owns two thirds of that name, and the remaining word can't be trademarked by itself. And really, the fact that any studio would hear a pitch from a fan, when it's been clear that even some big names who would help give such a series an instant boost, were turned away at the door.

If Gummelt is having an official conversation with Paramount, I really wish him the best success. I would love to see a fan rise up and help make Star Trek a television powerhouse again — it's happened before in the likes of Ronald D. Moore, Jane Espenson, Fuller and others.

But there are far too many holes in this story for me to post it as is, even just to say someone else is reporting it. And that's why you're reading this in the opinion side of our site, and not the news side. Of course, if we get some verifiable information, that could change. But until then, I strongly suggest that you be excited for Gummelt, and offer moral support (I saw bits and pieces of his concept, and I think he is definitely working to try something different and bold, which anyone would have to appreciate). However, you also should know that this story has not been vetted, and there are some serious questions about what is accurate in these claims, and what is not.

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