why the jeopardy! chaos matters to me

Happy Labor Day! I’m weighing in on one of our controversial workplace topics … ok, not really. I’ve rewritten this post a couple of times now – the first draft was turgid, the second preachy. Let’s hope the third time is the charm. You might ask why I just don’t move on to another topic. After all, this is really not the most pressing labor issue of our time. Well, that’s a fair question and at first, I didn’t understand what kept bringing me back, but now I get it ….

We live in a messy, imperfect and sometimes unjust world. Many of us look for escapes as a way to turn off, including reality TV, games, and old movies or TV shows offer that space to just let our minds find something fun to focus on. For some of us, our little oasis of sanity includes Jeopardy! and answering trivia questions. Fans of the show are split between those who don’t really care who the host is as long as the questions are read clearly and those for whom the host plays a vital role in the show. I thought I was in the first group, but to my surprise, I’m in the second group.

Had the Mike Richards drama not played out as it did (i’ll take “botched plan” for $1000, hosting jeopardy!) – that is, if Sony had hired Buzzy Cohen or Ken Jennings or really anyone who seemed to be reasonably good at hosting – I would probably still think I was in the first group. But as the drama played out, it became clear that it did matter who was selected to host the show – or rather, why and how the host was selected. Underlying that decision are two important issues: fairness and moving beyond social media idiocy.

Fairness. Let’s be blunt, Mike rigged the system to get what he wanted. That just doesn’t fly. People have an innate sense of fairness. It’s one of those things we hone as young children. “That’s not fair!” is something probably every child has said at one time or another to register their displeasure. We want people to have the opportunity to win and achieve their goals and we want others to treat us fairly. It’s fundamental (… like reading, LeVar Burton might say).

Aaron Rodgers studied past Jeopardy! episodes because he wanted to host the show and do a good job. LeVar Burton campaigned to have a chance to audition and continues to rally his online fans. Others commented in interviews that hosting Jeopardy! was their dream job. The audience was primed and excited to weigh in on the guest hosts and to consider what factors were associated with good hosting ability. People invested something – time, energy, expectations. When Mike got the job, there was a sense that it wasn’t fair and he had cheated not only the process but everyone who put in the effort to care who the new host should be. There was no way to reconcile the audience to Mike after his maneuvering.

Moving beyond comments. The other issue that has piqued my interest is the idea of how long we punish people for things they do or say (though they are always responsible for these things). When do we move past someone saying something offensive, stupid, or otherwise ill-advised? Mike, Ken and Mayim Bialik all have made comments that raised red flags, unintentionally hurt people, showed a lack of sensitivity, and made light serious issues. In my opinion, Mike’s comments are the most egregious because they relate to his role as a manager, demonstrate a pattern of behavior, and indicate that he doesn’t seem to realize that these comments were unprofessional, hurtful, racist/sexist/anti-semitic, and problematic. He may have gone on to complete all the required sensitivity training courses, but my sense is that he really might not “get it” and that, rather than the comments themselves, may be the bigger problem. On the other hand, Mayim’s comments generally reflect her opinion, so the discussion is more about her judgment related to both the opinion itself and making it public through various media formats. The reality is: there was no reason for her to comment in the first place – she chose to jump in on vaccines, sexual harassment of women in Hollywood, Zionism, parenting, brain improvement supplements (the latter of which provides a financial windfall), and other topics. It’s her prerogative, of course, to put her opinions out there but she faces the consequences of jumping into the fray.

I mentioned Ken as well – he seems to have fewer comments than Mike and Mayim (unless I’m missing something). He also seems to have learned his lesson and apologized. That’s good because we want people to grow. Most people say things they should not have said, offended someone, or found their comments were interpreted in an unintended way. Hopefully, we all have a chance to acknowledge our mistakes and apologize. At first it seemed that we were able to move on from Ken’s comments, but now it seems that his comments appear have taken him out of the running to host the show, though tweets alone may not be the reason. The other challenge for Ken was that, although he was a better host than expected, he felt very “safe” when it would be great for the show to have someone who can bring a bit more personality/charisma to the job.

In a previous post, I indicated that Buzzy Cohen was my pick and the rerun of the tournament of champions he hosted has only confirmed my feeling that he would be a terrific host. He has a natural ease and great combination of game knowledge and personality. I would also still be fine with Ken as a host. I’m having second thoughts about Mayim, though. She and Ken originally tied for #2 for me – but now, I’m ambivalent about her. She would really need to rein it in and I’m not sure she is ready to do that. Can she back away from offering her opinion on various topics? The growing chorus of people against her suggest that she has become a divisive pick.

I’m not sure what the fairest process is at this point. I wish they would hire Buzzy for a year or two and let everything settle down. Sometimes it’s better to take a breath and step back than to take decisive action before you’re ready. Sony may be looking to find someone who can go the distance and host for the next 25 years, but maybe they should focus on restoring stability – find someone who can right the ship. If they do have more guest hosts, then they really need to consider them carefully, include only those in contention for the job, provide an equal playing field, and be transparent in their decision-making process. This shouldn’t be this hard, especially given that Alex Trebek was 80 years old and announced that he had cancer months before he died. It’s baffling that there was no plan in place and that they got this so wrong.

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