Spock Crock

AP piece shows what happens when a narrative gets ahead of a story

Yesterday’s narrative-perpetuating Politico item on stories the president doesn’t want told seems to be, to borrow a phrase, “driving the conversation.” Politico’s John Harris listed as one of his “seven storylines” the idea that Obama’s character includes “too much Leonard Nimoy,” and sure enough, the Associated Press is out this morning with a story that asks, “Is Obama another Mr. Spock?”

The AP article is one of the odder ones I’ve seen in some time. It’s written by science reporter Seth Borenstein, and the guts of the piece are devoted to Obama’s purported personal interest in the sciences, which has apparently won him some fans among science geeks. But the story, which seems meant to be taken only half-seriously, doesn’t appear on the AP’s science page—it is, instead, categorized under the heading “Capital Culture.” (See other recent examples here and here.) And, of course, when people refer to Obama as “Mr. Spock,” it’s not science that they’re thinking about. In fact, before Borenstein moves on to the science-related section of the story, he summarizes the Spock CW:

Obama’s Spock-like qualities have started to cause him political problems in real world Washington. Critics see him as too technocratic, too deliberative, too lacking in emotion.

Obama’s protracted decision-making on a new war strategy in Afghanistan, for example, prompted criticisms that he’s too deliberate. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and other conservatives faulted Obama for “dithering.”

After a sudden transition to some science stuff and an almost-as-abrupt discussion of Star Trek, the article, toward its conclusion, returns to this theme:

In the [original Star Trek] movie, however, Spock was in charge of the USS Enterprise before he decided to hand over command to the more gut-driven Kirk. Spock’s reasoning that Kirk was better suited to command seems to echo some Obama critics who contend he lacks the emotional connection people want in their president.

At this point, of course, what’s being discussed is not science at all, but science fiction, and how “some Obama critics” are using a familiar trope to try to develop a useful storyline about the president. The relevance of actual science—or science policy, or Obama’s personal interest in the sciences, or anything beyond some inside-the-Beltway maneuvering to set the media message of the moment—to any of this is not particularly clear.

Besides providing further evidence that the AP and irony don’t mix very well, the story offers an example of narrative-setting of the worst kind. A couple of columnists, troubled by some aspect of the president’s character, seize on a dated but familiar pop culture reference. An influential political journalist takes notice, and deems it an official storyline. And just like that, the connection becomes a story in itself—one that can, apparently, form the core of an article with only the slenderest supporting material. After all, Spock was a science-y sort of guy, right? And Obama says he’s into science. And they both have prominent ears! Throw in a couple lines about emotional aloofness, and you’re good to go.

If there’s some sort of alternative media world that doesn’t work this way, beam me up.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.