In his autobiography, published shortly before his death last November, Alex Trebek noted that Jeopardy!, the trivia show he hosted for 37 years, always sought to transcend politics. Pointing an accusing finger at social media and 24/7 cable news, Trebek mourned America’s inability to see past the binary. “It forces us to choose a side and has convinced us that our side is right and the other side is wrong. If you don’t agree with me, you are my enemy. There is no room for compromise,” he lamented.
That moderate sentiment has gone missing in recent weeks as the show struggles to replace its beloved long-time host. Two weeks ago, an article by Claire McNear in The Ringer alleged that the show’s recently appointed co-host, Mike Richards, had a track record of making offensive comments. Digging through 41 episodes of a now-defunct, nearly decade-old podcast Richards mostly co-hosted alongside his female colleague Beth Triffon, McNear excavated several Howard Stern-style, off-the-cuff soundbites about sex, money, and politics. In one conversation, following the infamous iCloud photo hacks exposing Hollywood celebrities, Richards jokingly asks Triffon if she ever took such pictures. In another episode, Richards ribs Triffon for giving money to a homeless person. This jibe goes beyond the pale for McNear, who cannot even bring herself to utter the word “homeless,” instead writing “unhoused woman.” McNear also reports that Richards called Triffon a “midget” and “retard,” which she can only bring herself to allude to as “a derogatory term for little people” and “the R-word.”
It’s worth noting that after each alleged offense, Triffon, the target of Richards’s barbs, sounds unruffled, engaged, and cheerful. Triffon never responded to McNear’s requests for a comment, but she doesn’t seem to resent Richards’s supposed indiscretions.
A handful of politically incorrect soundbites is all it took for Richards to get canceled, losing his co-hosting gig and now even his executive producer role on both Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Meantime, McNear has been lauded as a trailblazing journalist. “She wrote the history of ‘Jeopardy!’ then she changed it,” a New York Times headline gushed following Richards’s firing as co-host. Asked at what point Richards’s comments unsettled her, McNear said, “It became extremely clear to me very quickly that those things were kind of dotted throughout the episode: He uses sexist language; he uses ableist language; he uses ugly slurs and stereotypes.”
All this looks ironic given that McNear’s latest book documenting the history of Jeopardy!, Answers in the Form of Questions, features a foreword by Ken Jennings, arguably the show’s greatest contestant. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Jennings was originally a favorite to succeed Trebek until one of his old tweets resurfaced. “Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair,” Jennings tweeted in 2014. Does Jennings’s book blurb for McNear make her an abettor of discrimination and ableism?
Now Richards’s co-host, actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik, is facing calls for her own cancellation due to her views on Israel, vaccines, and #MeToo. Even Trebek, during his grueling battle with terminal pancreatic cancer, wasn’t spared the mob’s wrath. During a 2018 interview in New York, he said of the #MeToo movement, “My gosh, this has got to be a scary time for men . . . young guys are stupid in their teens. There’s nothing stupider than a teenage boy.” He was excoriated.
The greatest potential beneficiary in the wake of Richards’s, Jennings’s, and soon perhaps even Bialik’s cancellation is someone who believes the phenomenon is all to the good: LeVar Burton, of Roots and Star Trek fame. Burton, the lowest-rated Jeopardy! guest host during the post-Trebek period, was asked about cancel culture back in April, when he appeared on The View. He called the term “a misnomer.” Rather, “I think we have a ‘consequence culture,’ and that consequences are finally encompassing everybody in this society.” Cancellations, he said, are “good signs that are happening in the culture right now.”
But hunting down and scrutinizing someone’s every utterance isn’t progress; it’s Orwellian. Journalists who spend their time this way aren’t heroes. Our children will not thank us for the precedents we’re setting.
Near the end of his life, Trebek wrote about the corrosive turn that our politics have taken. “I have one word of advice for both sides,” he said. “Enough!”
He didn’t phrase it in the form of a question.