Everybody’s reaction has pretty much been the same: What was Ken Jennings thinking?
With the debut of his new ABC quiz show “The Chase” scheduled for Jan. 7 and his stint as interim guest host of “Jeopardy!” set to start Jan. 11, the Seattle author and trivia titan waded into a Twitter storm to defend friend and colleague John Roderick. The Seattle musician and podcaster posted tweets last weekend, meant to be humorous, about not feeding his daughter for six hours until she figured out how to open a can of beans. Many on Twitter saw that as child abuse.
Jennings’ tweets in defense of Roderick, posted Sunday, caused immediate backlash, a further illustration of just how instantly polarizing social media has become.
While Roderick issued a 1,000-word apology Tuesday, some now wonder if Jennings has damaged his chances of replacing late host Alex Trebek permanently.
“The biggest thing is I feel for him,” said Aaron Blank, president and CEO of Seattle public relations firm The Fearey Group. “If this had been four years ago, this might be a completely different situation given the recent societal changes and political influences of today’s world. Regardless, he said some things that call his character into question and that is going to be a challenge for him in the short term. With that said, I find it interesting that some hold a potential ‘Jeopardy!’ host to a higher standard than our president, and so I start there: Whatever you say on the internet, regardless of time, you need to be really careful about it. And that still holds true for everyone.”
Compounding the problem, said David Johnson, CEO of Atlanta-based Strategic Vision PR Group, is this is a lesson Jennings should already have learned after drawing the ire of the internet for his own tweet history, including a joke about people in wheelchairs from 2014 that many condemned as ableist.
“It’s damaging him and it’s damaging his reputation,” Johnson said. “It just adds to the feeling that he’s not up to the bar to replace the beloved Alex Trebek. I think it does him more harm. And I think it really probably is the final nail in his coffin. He’ll be used as a guest host, but not as a permanent host.”
This is a pivotal moment for “Jeopardy!” and Jennings, the richest player in game-show history and winner of the 2020 “Jeopardy!: Greatest of All Time” tournament. Trebek’s death from pancreatic cancer on Nov. 8, 2020, marked the end of his 37-season run and left Sony Pictures Television producers with a huge decision to make with tens of millions of viewers — and dollars — at stake.
Jennings, whose “Jeopardy!” publicists did not respond to an interview request for this story, entered 2021 as the odds-on favorite for the job — and a bit of a longshot. A beloved figure in the community of “Jeopardy!” fans and former contestants, Jennings was named a consulting producer in September and was announced as the first interim host not long after Trebek’s death. Though Jennings has no formal background in television, “Jeopardy!” producers gave him the beneficial leadoff slot in a run of guest hosts, and oddsmakers made him the favorite against a field that included a dizzying array of celebrity contenders.
He was “the perfect candidate,” said Robert Thompson, professor and founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
“He was almost perceived as sort of Alex’s surrogate son, as Alex Trebek 2.0,” Thompson said. “That all seemed pretty effortless and the transition seemed like a natural choice to make — though they didn’t go all the way.”
That interim tag means things are now precarious for Jennings, however: “There’s an easy out for the producers,” Thompson said, if there’s more than a momentary blip. How much backlash comes Jennings’ way remains to be seen, but things looked bad earlier this week as reports of the tweets were repeated endlessly by news outlets that could have easily been focused elsewhere.
“We’ve got Georgia, we’ve got a president who may not be leaving the White House, we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Thompson said. “This is the opposite of a slow news cycle, the polar opposite of a slow news day. And it really goes to show how much ‘Jeopardy!’ is at the center of this culture.”
Without wading in too deeply, the problem started when Roderick, frontman for Seattle indie band The Long Winters and a podcaster who co-hosts the “Omnibus” podcast with Jennings, made a post Saturday showing his 9-year-old daughter attempting to learn how to open a can of beans. He refused to help her, working on a puzzle nearby for several hours as the child became increasingly upset and cried.
Roderick received a fire-breathing reaction from Twitter that included allegations of child abuse. He then called the affair a “teaching moment,” further inflaming the situation. Roderick, who has a history of questionable tweets issued under the guise of comedy, including some that could be considered rape jokes, or that used racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic language, was quickly dubbed “Bean Dad.”
Shortly afterward, Jennings leapt to Roderick’s defense with a series of tweets that included a joke and a swipe at the Twittersphere.
“Extremely jealous and annoyed that my podcast co-host is going to be a dictionary entry and I never will,” Jennings wrote, adding in a second tweet: “If this reassures anyone, I personally know John to be (a) a loving and attentive dad who (b) tells heightened-for-effect stories about his own irascibility on like ten podcasts a week. This site is so dumb.”
Jennings also pushed back on the idea that Roderick was anti-Semitic. Jennings’ tweets came just five days after he addressed his own history with Twitter in a five-tweet thread: “Sometimes I said dumb things in a dumb way and I want to apologize to people who were (rightfully!) offended. It wasn’t my intention to hurt anyone, but that doesn’t matter: I screwed up, and I’m truly sorry.”
Roderick later deleted the thread and his Twitter account. On Tuesday morning, he posted an apology to his website, saying, “I was ignorant, insensitive to the message that my ‘pedant dad’ comedic persona was indistinguishable from how abusive dads act, talk and think.” In the same apology, Roderick also wrote that the “racist, anti-semitic, hurtful and slur-filled tweets from my early days on Twitter” were “intended to be ironic, sarcastic.”
“I thought then that being an ally meant taking the slurs of the oppressors and flipping them to mock racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry,” Roderick wrote. “I am humiliated by my incredibly insensitive use of the language of sexual assault in casual banter.”
Though it wasn’t Jennings who posted the original thread, industry watchers wonder why, just a few days after his own Twitter apology, Jennings would again give his detractors a free shot.
“I think he was trying to be funny, but I think in this day and age that we’re living in, it’s more serious because people’s sensibilities are so heightened right now,” Johnson said. “Not to go into a political discussion, but we’re so polarized right now. Everyone’s so on edge that the smallest thing seems to set us off and with Jennings it just compounded his problems because he already has the tweets about the wheelchairs.”
“He clearly says that he’s made mistakes by posting things that he didn’t really mean to say,” Blank said. “If I’m a producer, I’m thinking if he’s writing things like this, is he going to slip on TV and say stuff that’s similar or in line with that? And that I think is what producers are going to be thinking about as they consider him as a host.”
Those not plugged into the pop culture milieu might wonder, “Who cares?” Well, the simple answer is a lot of people. “Jeopardy!,” a syndicated daytime program that airs in the 7:30 p.m. time slot on KOMO, can draw as many as 10 million or more viewers nationwide per episode. It’s also available on multiple streaming services and has been copied around the world. It’s the gold standard for reliability.
The audience is smart, dedicated and fairly affluent with a higher number of young viewers than generally recognized. And in their world, Jennings is a superstar, the Michael Jordan of trivia whose affable presence gets noticed. In Seattle, says Jessica Rappaport, KOMO’s creative services director, Jennings moves the needle.
“Over the years, he’s been a great ambassador for the show, as well as for Seattle,” Rappaport said. “When he was on ‘The Greatest of All Time’ tournament, it had very strong ratings in our market. In fact, they were on par with many of the non-Seattle Seahawks regular-season NFL games, which is a very high number.”
Observers believe Jennings still has a path to the permanent hosting job. It will help Jennings’ cause if he opens his interim run with a knockout Monday night.
“Forget the tweets. If he’s not great on the show and doesn’t score the ratings, they’re going to can him anyway,” Johnson said.
And an apology seems in order. Blank thinks this controversy might blow over quickly if Jennings deals with it and moves on to better things: “We’re all human, we all make mistakes.” But he thinks that five-tweet thread from late December already summed things up, so there’s a tricky dismount.
“The more you say about it, it creates more news cycles,” Blank said. “So if he sends another tweet out or if he puts another podcast on or if he addresses it, it’s going to continue to create more swells. I don’t know if he’s addressed it totally by putting out the five basic tweets that say in 140 characters how he feels about it. He might need to come out and say something more dramatic.”
Johnson also feels the apology needs to close the door for good.
“He’s got to appear contrite, sincere and he’s got to address the issue,” Johnson said. “But I would advise he address it one time, explain to them why he did it, apologize profusely and then nothing more. And the other thing is now he’s got to hope no other tweets come out because he’s already got two strikes against him.”