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How journalism saved Jeopardy! from big mistake

Through the pandemic lockdown, I shared an evening ritual with a friend: a quick over-the-phone debrief about the episode of Jeopardy! we had both just watched, at slightly different times.

Did either of us know the answer to the final question - or rather, per the show's intentionally cumbersome rules, the question to the final answer? Would anyone ever again reach the heights of contestant James Holzhauer's 32-game winning streak, propelled by his daring, high-stakes technique?

And, more recently, what did we think of the latest in this year's series of guest hosts?

My friend and I were in agreement about Mike Richards, the show’s executive producer who took a turn in front of the camera in February standing in for the late and legendary longtime host, Alex Trebek. To us, Richards seemed a little, well, smarmy.

Yet Richards, charged with finding a new permanent host for the show, somehow managed to emerge as the winning candidate. This although he was neither as knowledgeable and quick on his feet as former champion Ken Jennings, nor as charming as journalists Anderson Cooper or Katie Couric. And he wasn’t nearly as all-around terrific as actor LeVar Burton.

My friend and I considered boycotting Jeopardy! over this decision, although that would have meant forfeiting our pop-culture comfort food — a meaningless but cherished respite from Everything Else in the World.

Happily, we won’t have to do that now, thanks to Claire McNear of The Ringer, the reporter and author who diligently did what Sony, the show’s parent company, failed to do.

McNear vetted Richards with material that was out there in plain sight, finding many instances of sexist and offensive remarks he had made on a podcast, aptly titled The Randumb Show, including calling his co-host a “booth slut” and using crude stereotypes about Jews, Asians and poor people.

For instance, in one of the 41 episodes McNear listened to, a guest made a non-specific comment about big noses. “Ix-nay on the ose-nay,” Richards interjected (in pig Latin, always a tremendously sophisticated move). “She’s not an ew-Jay.” Responding to The Ringer’s reporting, the Anti-Defamation League tweeted: “Stereotyping is an entry point to hate. . . . This reported pattern warrants an investigation.”

It is not as if Richards made these comments as a goofy teenager podcasting from his parents’ basement. In 2013 and 2014, Richards was in his late thirties and an executive producer of another famous game show, The Price Is Right.

Those ugly podcast comments were not the only problem. There had been two discrimination lawsuits from models on the show naming Richards, one of them citing his insensitive jibes towards pregnant women. Both eventually settled, and his name was removed from one case along the way.

McNear’s story was published last Wednesday. By Friday, Richards had been bounced as new host, after only one day of filming and not much more than a week after his appointment had been announced. This quick turnaround brought a sigh of relief to some of us, but significant corporate embarrassment to Sony.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper

Richards issued a statement late last week that left the impression he still didn’t get it. He was stepping down because the fuss would be too distracting for fans and not the right move for the show, he said, making no mention of regretting the emotional harm that his offensive comments may have caused.

How did McNear get this story? And why did Sony fail to detect the seriousness of Richards’s liabilities any sooner, especially in an era when there is thankfully little patience for a track record of such talk?

McNear says her process was not all that complex.

“I just kept looking,” she told CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday.

After the initial reports came out about Richards having been named in the discrimination lawsuits, the would-be host insisted the claims did not reflect the reality of who he is. McNear took that as a challenge.

“It set me on the path of looking into who he is,” she said. The podcasts, less than a decade old, certainly helped to answer that question.

In a Twitter thread over the weekend, McNear included some material that she didn’t have room for in last week’s story. It made for an interesting cutting-room floor. For instance, in August 2014, Richards commented on Miley Cyrus: “Objectively she is not attractive and she does not have a great body. She’s just skinny and she has a boy body, which is why she wants to get fake boobs.”

McNear just kept looking. Basic vetting. Basic reporting.

As for why Sony — one of the largest entertainment companies in the world — could not have spared a few human-resources staffers to do this same work? That remains unknown. The company has said little beyond that it is resuming its search and that, in the meantime, the show would return to using guest hosts.

Like Jeopardy! itself, this tempest-in-a-TV set may not be hugely significant. But it does clearly show that the hallmarks of solid journalism — curiosity, digging, patience — prove their worth every time.

There’s no question about that.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper

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Published August 24, 2021 at 7:58 am (Updated August 24, 2021 at 7:54 am)

How journalism saved Jeopardy! from big mistake

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