Answers and Questions about… the apology and the backlash

The Jeopardy! community is gearing up for an emotional and wrenching time, as the final episodes of the show taped with Alex Trebek hosting will air on January 4-8, following two weeks of “Alex Around the World” repeats, celebrating the late host’s love of history and geography. But earlier this week, a spanner was thrown into the works that ratcheted up the energy and emotion even further.

Early Wednesday afternoon (late morning out in Seattle), Ken Jennings, who will be the first interim host of Jeopardy! in episodes that will begin to air on January 11, took a five-Tweet thread to apologize for various jokes he’d made on his Twitter feed over the years. He’s addressed some of this material before, and on first reading, it seemed pretty run-of-the-mill to me.

A lot of people didn’t see it that way. Their point of view was amplified by an article at The Federalist by Jordan Davidson, under the title “Wannabe ‘Jeopardy!’ Host Ken Jennings Is A Brett Kavanaugh Rape Truther Who Hates Republicans.” The piece consists of two paragraphs of Davidson’s writing, followed by two paragraphs of quoting Jennings’s apology thread. And the rest is… well, it’s a maneuver straight from the playbook of those on the left I imagine Davidson and the rest of the staff at The Federalist claim to abhor: surfacing dozens of Tweets insulting the political right that Jennings has made over the years, and holding them out as proof positive that the interim host’s apology is insincere. Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway had some choice words for Jennings, and even Donald Trump Jr. got into the mix with a Tweet of the link.

What needs to be recalled here is that there are two distinct subjects of Jennings’s speech at issue. The first is the jokes he made that may have offended disabled people; as they say in the universities and chattering classes these days, “ableist.” The second is the things to which Davidson objected in her article.

When I first perused her piece, I thought she was using the first subject as a springboard to get to the second. I needed to go back and re-read Jennings’s apology thread to see how she could plausibly come up with a connection. And once I did, I may have figured out what might actually be going on here. Davidson and her fellow ideological travelers took the apology literally, but not seriously. They thought it encompassed the slights directed toward them; when read as such, I can certainly see why they would dismiss the statement as faux, given the extensive history they dredged up.

I, on the other hand, read the apology seriously, but not literally, in a sense. It came across to me as an attempt to again address and redress his transgressions as regards the disabled. With respect to them, I hold that he has more than done so, and that his words are sincere, insofar as they go. But on initial reading, not for a second did I think he was yielding one iota to the right wing. Seriously?!?! Jennings told us exactly where he stands politically the night he won the GOAT event — a firm supporter of the expansive economic statism proffered by Senators Sanders and Warren. I’ve gotten to know very many Jeopardy! contestants over the past six and a half years, and in my (lived) experience, that’s about the median of the spectrum that contestants span. I imagine that ideological framework is a part of the core of who he is. It stands to reason that he can’t officially acknowledge that now that he’s been employed by the show since the start of this season, is about to become its public face, and — as has been noted — has already been taping episodes as host. To neglect to grasp that is a rather significant failure by Davidson and her superiors at The Federalist to read the room, so to speak.

From there, spurred on by various heavy hitters of Twitter driving it to higher decibel levels, the backlash unfolded. Some invoked the concept of “class,” in the sense that Jennings was a step down from Trebek in that regard. Two points in reply. For one, if you’re an observant a viewer of the program as I am, you might be aware of the phrase “Uncle Alex.” It’s often invoked, including by me, when Alex dropped back to 20th century values (among other things, when he noted contestants’ listed occupations in a manner that invoked archaic gender stereotypes). And for two, some opined that Trebek would never, ever make remarks in the vein of those Jennings made, and that he would have to apologize for. Um… not so much. Alex did so remark, and Alex did apologize. As The Jeopardy! Fan noted on (United States) Thanksgiving Day, Trebek made a comment in a 2016 interview segment that was perceived as offensive to Irish-Americans, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians condemned the remark and demanded an apology. The show was not in production at that time — but Alex played back tape of the incident, noted the possible perception that gave rise to the AOH’s objection, and personally contacted the organization’s anti-defamation chair and offered an apology. The Ancient Order most graciously accepted, and commended Alex and the show for reaching out. Indeed and in fact, Alex’s course of action in response to the Order’s concerns comes across to me as very similar to Jennings’s apology thread. As the AOH rightly notes: “It is a rare person indeed who has not at some point said something inappropriate and given offense where none was intended.”

User after user declared solemnly on Twitter that so long as Jennings hosts the show, they would not dignify it with their viewing. I think it’s fairly clear that’s what Davidson wanted to happen to begin with. And that objection, on both practical and theoretical grounds, must and will fail.

Let’s start with the practical – not least because it’s where I’m a little less sure of myself. As someone who watches Jeopardy! on a nightly basis and often Tweets during the 7:00 pm Eastern time slot (which, though the show may air to fewer households than at 7:30, is the most active half-hour of the day on the hashtag), I’ve come to know many other fans of the game through that medium. Some object to Jennings’s hosting the show for myriad reasons, not least among them the “BlindGuess Gate incident” some time back. But opposition from the right is not something that I imagine would tip any of them away from watching the show under his stewardship. It was really this incident that brought me out of my own show-related bubble, in a sense; I thought the show’s fanbase overall was more than a step or two to the left of where it seems to actually be. That said, I remain confident that even should the objectors depart the viewership, the show will retain enough eyeballs upon it to sustain it for however long it wishes to carry on, no matter who hosts.

The theoretical objection, then. Davidson posits that the espousal of political views she finds objectionable disqualifies Jennings from hosting Jeopardy!. I would hope she’d understand the principle of “universal application” — that is, once the rule is laid down, it subjects all to it equally. (After all, hasn’t the right rushed to its defense, after June, when the left aban— wait a second…) Apply that principle, and… there’s an implosion, right next door at Stage 11. Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak is a well-known and long-established conservative, having written for Human Events in the past and (wrongly, in my view) having questioned climate change. And do you hear that? An airstrike over the Bob Barker Studio at CBS Television City in Hollywood? On this basis, it would have to come. Drew Carey, host of The Price Is Right, rolls in my general political direction, so to speak. A long-time member of the Board of Trustees of the Reason Foundation, he was pivotal in standing up when was then known as reason.tv, to the point of starring in a series of shorts on how to correct whatever got the “Mistake by the Lake” that moniker. I submit that if you take Jordan Davidson at face value — that is, you can’t watch a game show if you disagree with the politics of its host — two great American institutions go by the wayside. If only libertarians can watch The Price is Right, it would be destroyed nearly as instantaneously as so many Federation starships were by The Burn in this season of Star Trek: Discovery. And if only conservatives can watch Wheel of Fortune, it doesn’t last much longer than that.

If those offended by Jennings’s politics elect not to continue watching Jeopardy! past January 8, that is their right, and it is their choice. I borrow here a quote from something else I love dearly, from one of its great sages and scions: “your fandom belongs to you.” Whether you tune in once a week or every day, whether you just follow along with each evening’s answers and questions or you track your Coryats extensively, whether you curse Ken at every opportunity in the coming months or you resolve to continue to keep track of every affiliate in the United States upon which the show appears… you are all, each in your own way, fans of our beloved game, and nobody has standing to dictate otherwise to you.

As for me — well, obviously, it’s just too ingrained as a part of me to not continue watching. While Alex Trebek was a massive part of Jeopardy! becoming and remaining as amazing as it is, he never considered himself bigger than the game. It was a point of pride for him to demand to never be referred to as the “star” of Jeopardy!, only as the “host” instead; to him, the stars were the players showcasing their knowledge to television viewers across North America. That’s a quality that I’ll be looking for as I evaluate each interim host’s performance. (Among others: reversals per episode. It’s important that the rulings be gotten right the first time as often as possible.) What will absolutely not factor into my consideration is whether my world view aligns with each of the guest hosts. I would simply and humbly request that anyone and everyone presently watching the show leave that factor out of the equation, and enjoy our beloved game for what it is — and has always been, and ever shall be.

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