Thomas Friedman's Jeopardy! loss explained

People who don't like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman are having lots of laughs about his third-place finish on Jeopardy!'s Power Players Week Friday.

In an interview, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek said journalists are unpredictable guests: "They're used to asking questions and getting an answer. We give answers and they have to come up with a question." The buzzer takes some getting used to also, he says. Neither of those explanations explain Friedman's performance, so with the help of the amazing J! Archive, I examined some of the questions on Friedman's episode -- during which Anderson Cooper trounced not just him but also NBC's Kelly O'Donnell -- for a more compelling story.

PROMPT: "Central Alabama's Black Belt is famous for growing this fiber that was once 'king.' " Cooper, using a nifty pointer-finger technique on the buzzer, nails "What is cotton?"

EXPLANATION: Friedman has written about the University of Alabama's "Creative Campus," but I couldn't find any references to cotton production in its Black Belt region in his work.

PROMPT: "In 2011, BusinessWeek said European government bonds were this 'poisonous' kind of debt." Friedman guessed "subprime." Correct answer was "toxic."

EXPLANATION: BusinessWeek once called Friedman America's "Mustache of Enlightenment."

PROMPT: "It's the 'tiny' term for a person who writes short posts about one's personal life on Tumblr or Twitter." Friedman said, "A tweeter -- what is a tweeter?" The answer in the form of a question Trebek was looking for was: "What is a microblogger?"

EXPLANATION: Gotta be nerves. No way Friedman would otherwise conflate two innovative, disruptive companies like Tumblr and Twitter, the latter of which he recently saluted in a column and uses to signal readers when he's published a new piece.

PROMPT: He also produced stationary sculptures called stabiles. Friedman correctly identified Alexander Calder.

EXPLANATION: I couldn't find any overlap between Friedman and Calder in the archives, but the National Gallery of Art's East Wing in Washington, D.C, is near enough to Friedman's house in Bethesda, Md., that it's possible he's visited it and seen its marvelous Calder collection.

PROMPT: "Rising in our nation's capital just a few blocks from here, it was once known as Jenkins Hill." Cooper correctly identified Capitol Hill.

EXPLANATION: Friedman has written critically of Congress -- e.g., "Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery" -- and his mind may have gone to the institution atop Capitol Hill rather than the geographic feature itself. Or maybe it's because he lives in the 'burbs?

PROMPT: "Fodor's says that Paris is no longer deserted in this month, as was traditionally the case." Friedman correctly identified "August."

EXPLANATION: Friedman has given a lot of thought to what's wrong with the French. "France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy." Paris is also one of the few places a cab driver has refused to converse with him.

FINAL JEOPARDY!: "The National Inventors Hall Of Fame said his work 'brought the South prosperity,' but he was out of business within 5 years." Friedman answered: "Who" Correct answer: "Who was Eli Whitney?"

EXPLANATION: I got nothing. In addition to inventing the cotton gin, Whitney revolutionized machine-tooling and pioneered interchangeable parts; he seems like Friedman's kind of guy.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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