`Jeopardy' Host Defends Show's Record On Race

Three Alex Trebeks were in town yesterday.

One was the compassionate man who has traveled the globe to produce videos promoting World Vision, the international relief organization that opened its new headquarters in Federal Way with a gala last night. Trebek was the emcee.

Another was the host of the intellectual game show "Jeopardy!" On national TV, Trebek is smart and funny but calm. Yesterday he was lively, even a little off the wall, on KOMO-TV's "Northwest Afternoon." He even played a parody round of "Jeopardy!" with Channel 4 weather forecaster Steve Pool.

And there was a third Trebek visiting Seattle, an angry man who sternly expressed hurt over a remark last week by African-American poet Maya Angelou, a "Jeopardy!" fan who said she was disappointed with the program's lack of diversity among its contestants.

"We have changed everything about this country - our very being here," Angelou told David Frost during a PBS interview. "And I turn on a program like `Jeopardy!,' where quite often I am featured, or my name or some book I've written or some music I've written is the answer. And I see no black people on it.

"I mean, I haven't seen a black person for two years on `Jeopardy!' . . . So I'm boycotting it, although I love it," Angelou said.

Trebek says contestants on the show are indeed overwhelming white - and male - but through no lack of effort to recruit people of color.

"It may well be that our (screening) test, which is made up of 50 questions, is culturally biased in favor of whites and against African Americans and other minorities," Trebek said. "But I don't know how you change that. Our audience is primarily Middle America, and that is primarily white. We have trouble attracting blacks to the program.

"We have placed ads in black newspapers, we have set up booths at NAACP conventions, trying to get people to just come out and take the test, but they don't do it.

"Even though we are not successful in attracting blacks to the program as contestants, we feature on a regular basis categories about famous black people," he said.

"We are trying our darnedest to make America in general more aware of the accomplishments of black people in this country," he continued.

"I was disappointed that Maya would have made the comment without being in possession of all the facts," said Trebek, who does not know Angelou personally, "because obviously she doesn't know the steps we have taken to try to get black Americans to compete on the program."

At least in one respect, "Jeopardy!" defies criticism. It's proof that television is not mindless, and Trebek defends the medium.

"I don't agree that TV is the vast wasteland," he said. "Particularly now with all the cable channels that are available, you have the opportunity, if you select correctly, to be entertained, to be informed, to be challenged, to keep up to date with what's happening in the world.

"You can learn much more than you can from reading the newspaper," Trebek said. "You can pick it up much faster."

Sounds like we're in the "Final Jeopardy" round.