Our View: Trebek’s debate performance a disservice to Pennsylvania

Moderator Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey on Monday night. The debate was hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. - Matt Rourke | AP photo

At 78, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek may be a living legend, but he had no business moderating Monday night’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial forum in Hershey.

The “conversational” debate was supposed to engage Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican challenger Scott Wagner on issues of importance to Pennsylvanians.

Instead, Trebek spent far too much of that time asking rambling questions, digressing into bizarre personal anecdotes and cutting off the candidates at absolutely the worst possible moment.

Trebek painfully joked that the only thing with a lower approval rating than the Pennsylvania legislature was the Catholic Church.

When the audience booed, he defended the statement. So we learned, for example, that Trebek attended a Catholic boarding school as a youth but “not once in those three years was there any sexual misbehavior.”

Who cares?

Plenty of people in Pennsylvania do care about the natural gas industry, however, and whether the state should impose a severance tax. Sadly, we only got to hear Wolf’s views on the matter, because Trebek — who seemed to favor such a tax — cut Wagner off before he could respond, saying time was up.

The audience booed again, and rightly so. It’s an important policy question, and one of Wagner’s signature issues. He should have been allowed to speak.

Nor did we hear a single word about eliminating property taxes, an issue that is important to many Pennsylvanians.

We did hear a clumsy football joke and lectures from Trebek, a California resident, on education funding and the size of his state’s legislature compared with ours.

Reaction from the Twitterverse was deliciously savage.

“The problem with this #PAGov debate is that Alex Trebek doesn’t seem to know how to form a direct, concise question. Which is as ironic as anything I’ve ever seen,” tweeted Philadelphia attorney and blogger Adam Bonin.

Former Republican operative Andrew Ritter Jr. tweeted the following calculation of who spoke most and longest:

• Trebek – 44 times: 21 minutes, 37 seconds

• Wagner – 29 times: 17 minutes, 25 seconds

• Wolf – 25 times: 13 minutes, 7 seconds.

In fairness, Trebek can’t shoulder all the blame. He joked that he had been drunk when he accepted the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s request to moderate, adding that he agreed only on the condition that he could do things his way, meaning a “conversation,” not a traditional debate. The candidates consented.

Shame on the Pennsylvania Chamber for not treating this serious event — the only scheduled debate between Wolf and Wagner before November’s election — with the gravity it deserves.

Once upon a time, Trebek was a newsreader for the CBC in his native Canada. And for one week more than 20 years ago, Trebek filled in for Charlie Gibson on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” For much of his career, however, Trebek has been a game show host — and, indeed, the host of a videotaped game show at that.

This is not to say Trebek isn’t intelligent or adept at handling awkward situations, but his live performance Monday was cringeworthy in the extreme, and did a great disservice both to the candidates and to the voters of Pennsylvania.

“So many tangents and stories from Trebek and questions with no real answers by the candidates,” tweeted Central Penn Business Journal reporter Jason Scott.

We’ll leave you with a tweet from Ben Waxman, director of communications for Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner.

“Uh. Anyone who thinks there isn’t value in political reporters should be watching this ridiculous #pagov debate,” Waxman tweeted. “Hire a journalist next time!”

— Times Leader

Moderator Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey on Monday night. The debate was hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/web1_AP18275075907605-1.jpgModerator Alex Trebek speaks during a gubernatorial debate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner in Hershey on Monday night. The debate was hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Matt Rourke | AP photo