What is a "scapegoat"?
"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek has clarified a controversial decision on the long-running game show that sparked angry responses last week.
Trebek became the unlikely target of scorn after a controversial decision regarding a final Jeopardy answer from Thomas Hurley, a Newtown, Conn., eighth-grader who was participating in the show's Kids Week competition.
Hurley and his fellow contestants were asked to name the 1863 document Abraham Lincoln said was a "fit and necessary war measure.'' The answer – or question, rather – was the Emancipation Proclamation.
Unfortunately, Hurley bungled the spelling of the first word in his response, "emanciptation," in such a way that it was deemed invalid.
Hurley, who finished in second and took home a $2,000 prize, hung his head in shame. Viewers flooded the show's Facebook page with negative comments. The controversy blew up even further after the 12-year-old told the Danbury News-Times he felt he'd been "cheated" by the show, with news outlets across the country picking up on the allegation.
As the face of "Jeopardy" for 28 years, Trebek has been a target for much of the criticism. And, he says, the situation was not helped by a statement from producers to the Huffington Post.
"If 'Jeopardy!' were to give credit for an incorrect response (however minor), the show would effectively penalize the other players. We love presenting young people as contestants on our show, and make every effort to be fair and consistent in their treatment," it read.
The problem, according to Trebek, is that the statement failed to explain the judging process and his role in it.
"It wasn't my decision; it was the judges'," said Trebek via telephone Friday. "I don't mind being accountable if it's something I have done, but it kind of bothers me to take a lot of flak for something I haven't done. I must be getting thin-skinned in my old age."
When reached for comment, producers of "Jeopardy!" reiterated their previous statement and did not elaborate further.
Trebek added, "I want to be liked and I try my darndest with the kids, because they are so sensitive."
Making the situation more uncomfortable for Trebek was that he didn't entirely agree with the ruling.
"After the show I said [to the judges], 'I can understand it, but it's a little rough.' I thought they may have ruled a little harshly, but they ruled according to the rules of the game. They made a valid point, and I can understand that."
According to Trebek, contestants are thoroughly briefed before taping about the rules.
"The rules are very simple. Normally we don't penalize anybody for misspelling. I mean if he had spelled emancipation, p-a-y-s-h-u-n, we probably would have accepted it. But if you add a syllable through your spelling mistake, or delete a syllable, then the judges will rule against you."
But the statement from the producers failed to adequately explain the rationale behind the decision, Trebek said.
"If they had just explained the rules, that would have been the end of it. I thought it was insensitive to Thomas and to his family and to our viewers."
The decision was a tough break for young Hurley, but in the end it had no bearing on his placement: The first-place finisher, Skyler Hornback, went into the final round with $36,600, and, after answering correctly, won a whopping $66,000.
It was the third-highest one-day total in the history of the game show.
For Trebek, one of the most disappointing things about the Hurley controversy is how it had detracted from Hornback's historic victory.
"He was just kick-ass good," he said.
Still, Trebek is sympathetic to Hurley and to other "Jeopardy!" contestants.
"The contestants who come on our show are bright, and bright people are used to succeeding more than they fail. And a lot of people don't know how to fail," he said. " "I tell the kids, 'Don't let this be a bad moment in your life. It's a good moment. You got here. You played well and somebody beat you, that's all."