“I’ll take bad moderators for $1,200, Alex.” On Monday night, famed “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek moderated a gubernatorial debate in Pennsylvania. It put his reputation in, well, jeopardy. Reactions poured in online during and after the debate, the vast majority of them negative.
Trebek suffered such opprobrium largely because, while officiating the debate, he forgot the skill that makes him such a great game show host—taking himself out of the equation. As with Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire at the center of a controversy with Serena Williams at last month’s U.S. Open final, Trebek seemed too insistent on making himself, not the candidates, the center of attention.
The Light-Touch Quizmaster
Unique among game shows, “Jeopardy!” places a premium on speed, timing, and rhythm. The show contains a large number and variety of clues—a dozen categories of five clues each, packed into a half-hour program—and its dreaded signaling device often means the difference between a contestant winning or losing. Those two factors mean the host should keep the show moving, and smoothly, to allow the contestants to cover all the material, and not interrupt a contestant on a “hot streak.”
During a typical show of 60 clues, Trebek makes comments after a half-dozen of them. He might add a word or two of explanation if a contestant came close to the correct response, or tell contestants when less than a minute remains in the round. He will also announce a scoring change—normally at the beginning of a round, or before a contestant wagers on a Daily Double—and occasionally make a quip based on a contestant’s response.
But almost always, the pace remains paramount. (If Trebek flubs his reading of a response, the producers will go back and re-record the clue for better audio, but only after they complete filming the segment.) Having watched dozens of “Jeopardy!” shows live, both as a contestant and as an audience member, I know how much the rhythm matters, and what a distraction interruptions impose on the competitors. Almost always, Trebek deftly keeps the show on-time, and on-course.
Unlike Steve Harvey on “Family Feud,” for instance, viewers like me don’t watch “Jeopardy!” to see the host riff on a contestant’s outfit or silly response. We watch the show for the material—to compete, albeit virtually, against the show’s writers, as well as the day’s contestants. Trebek knows this, and he comports himself accordingly. Except on Monday night.
A Pompous Debate Moderator
Compare Trebek’s conduct on “Jeopardy!” to his behavior during the debate. After reading the reactions on Twitter, I watched the debate in full on Tuesday to evaluate it for myself. As bad as I thought it would be, it ended up far worse:
- He started out by saying the debate wasn’t about him—during the middle of a several-minute monologue explaining how he came to host the debate.
- His first question asked Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf which Philadelphia Eagles defensive player won two Super Bowl rings playing for two different teams. Trebek later claimed that he posed this “gotcha” question to make a broader point about fairness, but that point seemed lost on most people.
- Following an answer from Republican challenger Scott Wagner in support of mandatory death sentences, Trebek responded by saying “I have two problems with that.” As if Trebek’s problems with Wagner’s response matter. Granted, Trebek went on to note that the Supreme Court has declared mandatory death sentences unconstitutional—an important bit of context, given that the court’s ruling conflicts with Wagner’s proposed policy—but he could have made that point in a less intrusive and pompous way.
- He prefaced one question on redistricting by talking about driving one day from Lansdale, Pennsylvania to Wilmington, Delaware. I swear: I’m not making this up.
- Trebek made an offhand “joke” about the Catholic Church having a lower approval rating than the state legislature does, a reference to the sex abuse scandal plaguing many Pennsylvania dioceses. When the audience began to boo and hiss, Trebek proceeded to go further on this tangent, explaining that he attended Catholic school himself in Canada, and was “ticked off” by the scandals.
- After Wagner said he supported open primaries—elections in which individuals not registered with a party can vote—Trebek remarked to Wagner, “You have to be careful what you wish for,” because in Trebek’s view another, “more moderate” candidate would have won the Republican primary instead of Wagner.
- He ended the debate by asking why Pennsylvania had not established a severance tax on oil fracking revenue. When people in the audience questioned Trebek’s premise that a severance tax would “bring in a lot of money,” he snapped: “You’re not part of the debate—these two are.” Once again, Trebek forgot that he had no business engaging in debate while moderating the candidates’ discussion.
Liberal Hollywood Mindset
Over and above the tenor of Trebek’s moderation, his choice of questions perhaps perfectly demonstrated the priorities of Hollywood liberals. The discussion of “fairness” consumed the first quarter of the debate. The rest of the conversation consisted largely of topics about which only the intelligentsia care—redistricting, reducing the size of the legislature, open primaries—or catnip for liberal activists—the death penalty, gun control, and the severance tax.
One question in particular showed both Trebek’s liberal bias and his policy ignorance. The moderator loudly complained about education policy, attacking former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett for “knock[ing] off $1 billion” in spending. In a lengthy discussion of education, Trebek never referred to test results or schooling outcomes, instead obsessing solely on the amount of spending, as if spending more money can guarantee excellence.
Ironically, health care received nary a mention during the debate—a notable omission, given that Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program has grown substantially in recent years. As of Fiscal Year 2017, Medicaid comprised 38.8 percent of Pennsylvania’s budget—the highest percentage of a state budget spent on Medicaid in the country.
If Trebek cared so much about education, he could have asked whether Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion to the able-bodied has taken money that otherwise could have gone towards his precious education spending. But he didn’t.
He Still Doesn’t Get It
Following the online reaction Monday night, Trebek did an interview on Tuesday trying to explain the debate debacle. In response, he said he was “too naïve,” and that he “didn’t feel powerful enough to interrupt [the candidates] more than I did.” No, no, no.
Trebek somehow thought that a “conversational” debate style gave him the power to interject his own comments, thoughts, and opinions into the discussion, just like that crazy uncle you have to indulge once a year at Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t, because nobody cares what Trebek thinks about politics. Also, giving more power to someone who vastly exceeded his appropriate level of authority would have made an already awkward debate even worse.
Former PBS anchor, and frequent presidential debate moderator, Jim Lehrer gave advice during the 2016 campaign that goes exactly against Trebek’s instinct Monday night, and his response Tuesday. As with Trebek the quiz show host, Trebek the moderator should seek to blend himself into the background, rather than seeking even more power to make a spectacle of himself:
All moderators have to keep in mind that these debates are not about them. There are two players on the stage…The moderator is not there to show off how smart, or tough he or she is. The more a moderator can stay out of it and facilitate the discussion between the candidates, the better off everybody is going to be. This is done solely for the voters, so they can make a decision for whom to vote….This isn’t about entertaining people. It can be very tempting to try to show [off]. It isn’t about the moderator furthering their career.
Unless and until Trebek can learn that lesson, he should give a simple response to anyone else looking for a debate moderator: “What is ‘I’m sticking to my day job’?”