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Journalism's Shatner Syndrome

Jack Shafer has got me thinking, and nothing good can come of that. Jack writes:

' The "retirement" of the buyout brigade has the added benefit of loosening the ugly stranglehold the boomers have over the press. I may be risking self-extermination by advocating wholesale boomer expulsion, but there are just too many of us--especially the older variety--in top slots for journalism's good. The sheer weight of our presence blocks the promotion of the next generation of talented journalists to the most desirable beats.

'We like our nice salaries, we enjoy our benefits and vacation time, we dig our place in the pecking order, and we expect to live forever. So why should we leave? Our intransigence not only gives our product a rancid boomer tang--who can blame nonboomers for being repulsed?--it tends to stifle innovation.'

So let's discuss this: Are we boomers clogging up the arteries of journalism?

Let's answer this by thinking, for a moment, about the many things we learned from "Star Trek."

We learned to boldly go, or perhaps, if we were grammatically persnickety, go boldly, where no person had gone before. We learned to wear pajama tops as though they rated as professional garb. We learned to use the phrase "He's dead, Jim" in almost every conversation. We learned to avoid being the unnamed crewman accompanying the big-name stars as they beamed down to a world covered with man-eating plants. We learned how to endure the vibrations of Warp 8 by holding onto the armrests of the helm very tightly. And so on. The show was freakin' educational!

It was through "Star Trek" and its sophisticated approach to the universe that we learned just how shallow, and unvisionary, and ultimately soulless "The Jetsons" was.

But here's the most important lesson of all: We learned the enduring value of reruns. The money is never in the original; it's in the reruns, the subsidiary rights, the overseas markets, the merchandising. "Star Trek" only ran for three seasons -- a mere 78 episodes -- before it was canceled. And then it had an afterlife, with endless reruns, and then the movies, and then the spin-off series.

Now, some may argue that the evolution of the franchise proves Shafer's point. Only when the original cast members of "Star Trek" were shunted off into retirement could we have the brilliant new version of the show, "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

But notice how even as those Star Trek sequel series have come and gone, one man, one titan of TV, one actor for the ages, has somehow stuck around, reinventing himself, making the deft transition from the Pre-Ironic Age to the postmodern "air quotes" era in which all drama is ultimately a variation of camp. He made the transition, other words, that Charlton Heston couldn't. You know who I'm talking about.

Shatner. William Shatner.

He's still around, going strong on that lawyer show set in Boston, right? Is that still on? [Yes! See Frank Ahrens's excellent blog entry on this.] Plus he's been on all those TV commercials. But where's that Picard guy? Nowhere. Shatner rules. This is why you shouldn't try to get rid of the boomers. We'll keep turning up like Shatner. You can't get rid of us as easily as you think. We'll show you reinvention!

[Disclosure: Shafer is a friend and needs to drop by my place because it's Wiffle Ball season. Ditto for Ahrens.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 9, 2008; 9:24 AM ET
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