In Defense of Alex Trebek
Television critics can be a tough bunch. But they’re no match for Pennsylvania politicos.
That’s the lesson Alex Trebek learned after the “Jeopardy!” game show host moderated a live gubernatorial debate between incumbent Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf and his Republican challenger Scott Wagner at the 34th Annual Pennsylvania Chamber Dinner at the Hershey Lodge on Monday, Oct. 1.
Viewers didn’t need to see the Nielsen ratings to measure audience reaction. The fury was swift. Twitter was alight with clever in-the-form-of-a-question criticisms throughout the 45-minute affair. Columnists and pundits piled on after it was all over.
Audience members booed. Or they were hushed by dropping jaws.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati didn’t even stick around for the closing act. He could be seen walking through the crowded hall and heading for the doors about 10 minutes before the debate finished.
Give Trebek credit. He recognized the moment he was living in post-debate. Or maybe his agent and crisis communications team called him right way. Trebek admitted during his opening monologue that “Jeopardy!” scores its highest ratings in Pennsylvania. He may not have won the audience, but he still needed to win this market.
Whatever the case, after commercial breaks the following day, the 78-year-old host hit the media damage-control circuit, doing a few interviews to talk to directly to viewers in the same way a candidate talks to voters.
But let’s be honest: Trebek doesn’t owe anyone an apology, even though he issued a three-paragraph statement that acknowledged he was “a little too naïve” going into the debate, and offering “sincere apologies” to Pennsylvania, “a state I dearly love.” (Like a good candidate, he stayed right on message in this top-rated market, probably hearing the footsteps of “Wheel of Fortune” hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White chasing him.)
The reality is the bar was set way too high for Trebek in the first place.
The chamber deserves credit for the quality of speakers it locks in for its annual event. Trebek’s appearance is no different. The special guest helped the organization draw its largest dinner crowds ever.
What was different this time is that it was more than just another annual chamber dinner. It was the lone gubernatorial debate. That’s not the chamber’s fault. And that’s not Trebek’s fault, either.
In fact, the audience got what it paid for: entertainment, as this spectator noted in an interview with the Reading Eagle.
The criticism of Trebek might have been a bit more subdued if journalists and pundits knew they were going to have another shot at the York County duo of Wolf and Wagner. Or maybe not. As noted, Pennsylvania politicos can be a tough bunch.
But let’s give credit where credit is due.
The Canadian-born, California-living TV star knew more details about some of the hot-button and defining issues in our commonwealth than the average Pennsylvania voter does. He may have dwelled too long on his questions to prove he studied, but he did his homework.
And whether it’s one debate or 100, voters owe it to themselves to do the exact same studying up this out-of-state guy did before they head to the polls in Pennsylvania on Nov. 6.
Kurt Knaus is the Managing Director in Ceisler Media's Harrisburg office.