Gov. Wolf and former State Sen. Scott Wagner faced off in the only debate between Pennsylvania's two gubernatorial candidates on Monday night. The 45-minute debate was hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and the moderator was Jeopardy!'s Alex Trebek.
Trebek stole the show, and not in a good way. Twitter users were not pleased: "The
#PAGovDebate is, uh, pretty bad," "Man, Alex Trebek is likely the chattiest moderator I've ever heard," "For a man that asks questions for a living, Alex Trebek is not asking many." After the debate, viewers who stayed to watch the PCN coverage heard caller after caller complain about Trebek's performance.
The choice of an untraditional moderator is not ludicrous. The gubernatorial race is getting very little attention and perhaps having a national figure moderating a debate could've motivated people to tune in.
But in a time of fractured politics and divisive rhetoric, Trebek emerged as a unifying figure. Republicans, Democrats, journalists, and viewers at home all agreed: Trebek tanked.
After conversations inside and outside the newsroom and through social media, we've rounded up some other potential hosts who might've facilitated a better gubernatorial debate.
Of course, Philadelphians suggested Gritty as a debate host. You know you've done a bad job as a debate moderator when people suggest that a creature that cannot speak could do a better job than you.
Other comedic suggestions included Kenan Thompson's depiction as host of Black Jeopardy or Will Ferrell's impersonation of Trebek, both from Saturday Night Live.
Humorous suggestions from journalists in our newsroom included Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh ("he could ask each of them if they like beer, and, if not, what they drink instead"), Philadelphia comedian Kevin Hart ("so we could see his facial reactions to their answers"), or any Philadelphia Phillie ("sadly, they have time").
The former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor was suggested by two political writers at the Inquirer — Chris Brennan and Claudia Vargas. "If the debate is going to be all about the moderator," says Brennan, "at least have it be a local guy and not some Canadian import." Brennan is referring to the fact that Trebek was born in Ontario and became a U.S. citizen in 1998.
Rendell, known for his Philly-style charisma, was nicknamed "America's Mayor" by Al Gore and chaired the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election.
Malcolm Kenyatta, who is the Democratic candidate for state representative in North Philadelphia's 181st District, admitted to having a soft spot for Trebek. "I'm a Jeopardy! kid. I grew up watching Jeopardy!, so Alex Trebek could do no wrong in my view." With that caveat, Kenyatta said he would have loved to have seen a debate hosted by Alex Holley of Fox29. "She is fun, she is a woman of color, and I think she is really engaging."
Holley is coanchor of Good Morning Philadelphia. While Holley is not a traditional pick to host a debate, Kenyatta said, she would have "brought a different flavor and perspective."
State Sen. John DiSanto, who represents parts of Harrisburg and the city's suburbs, and his wife, Maria, used to love Jeopardy!, but he wasn't sure they would be able to enjoy the show after Trebek's performance.
DiSanto originally thought Trebek was a good choice: "I thought he would have been a smooth, even-handed moderator." Instead, DiSanto said, Trebek shared his opinions instead of just asking questions. After the debate DiSanto tweeted: "I thought he may announce he was in the race! Voters hardly got a chance at a fair look at the candidates."
The role of a moderator, according to DiSanto, is to "conduct a civil debate" to help voters "make the most informed decision" they can. To that end, DiSanto said, ABC27's Dennis Owens did a good job when he moderated a debate between then-Gov. Tom Corbett and then-candidate Wolf at the Chamber's annual dinner.
The Daily Show on Comedy Central has been balancing the fine line between entertainment and news for more than two decades. Inquirer and Daily News columnist Jenice Armstrong suggested the show's host, Trevor Noah, "if you want someone cool."
That said, Armstrong doesn't think that being fun and cool should be qualifications to moderate a debate. "This is not funny business," she said. Ben Waxman, director of communications for District Attorney Larry Krasner, echoed the sentiment in a tweet after the debate: "Hire a journalist next time!"
While suggestions like Gritty or Kevin Hart might be good for ratings, if the debate doesn't lead to a conversation about serious issues, what is the value of people watching?
In August, the Inquirer's Editorial Board invited both candidates to a "people's debate." "We will communicate with both campaigns and organize the actual event. We will solicit questions from the public so that the agenda is set by voters. We will ensure that the event is free, and make it available for anyone to watch in some manner."