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Mike Richards steps down as new ‘Jeopardy!’ host

Mike Richards, the executive producer of “Jeopardy!” who was tapped to succeed Alex Trebek as host of the venerable game show franchise, announced Friday he is stepping aside amid recent scrutiny over past comments about women, Jews and poor people.

“I was deeply honored to be asked to host the syndicated show and was thrilled by the opportunity to expand my role. However, over the last several days it has become clear that moving forward as host would be too much of a distraction for our fans and not the right move for the show,” Richards said in a statement.

“As such, I will be stepping down as host effective immediately. As a result, we will be canceling production today,” he added.

Richards was one of several guest hosts who helmed the show after Trebek died in November. Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show, will now “resume the search for a permanent syndicated host,” he said. In the meantime, the show will continue to feature guest hosts.

“I want to apologize to each of you for the unwanted negative attention that has come to ‘Jeopardy!’ over the last few weeks and for the confusion and delays this is now causing. I know I have a lot of work to do to regain your trust and confidence,” Richards said.

In a statement, Sony said it supported Richards’ decision to step down.

“We have spoken with him about our concerns and our expectations moving forward,” the company said in part. “Mike has been with us for the last two years and has led the ‘Jeopardy!’ team through the most challenging time the show has ever experienced. It is our hope that as EP he will continue to do so with professionalism and respect.”

Richards will continue to serve as the show’s executive producer, a spokesperson for Sony confirmed to NBC News.

The backlash

Richards, who filled in as guest host from late February to early March, has faced intense scrutiny in recent weeks over alleged past behavior, riling up longtime fans who believe producers are derailing a game show that has been a mainstay of American syndicated television since 1984.

Twitter lit up with fury that the show did not select a more diverse candidate for the job, such as the actor and former “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton, who is beloved among millennial audiences and even inspired a petition calling on “Jeopardy!” to make him the permanent host.

Richards’ detractors have resurfaced two discrimination lawsuits in which he was involved. He has denied wrongdoing.

The first was filed by Brandi Cochran, a former model for “The Price Is Right,” who said she was fired after she became pregnant. Richards, who was not listed as a defendant, was accused in the suit of treating Cochran differently after she announced she was pregnant in 2008. The case went to trial and a jury awarded Cochran more than $8 million.

The award was later overturned by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge; Cochrain and the defendants settled out of court, documents show.

In 2011, Lanisha Cole, another model for “The Price Is Right,” sued and accused Richards of treating her differently than the other models.

Richards was among the named defendants in that suit. However, he was later dropped as a defendant, and the suit was settled in 2013, according to The Daily Beast. In a recent note to “Jeopardy!” staff members, Richards described the lawsuits as “employment disputes” against “The Price Is Right.”

“I want you all to know that the way in which my comments and actions have been characterized in these complaints does not reflect the reality of who I am or how we worked together on ‘The Price Is Right,’” he wrote.

The backlash to his hiring escalated Wednesday after The Ringer’s Claire McNear reported that Richards made disparaging comments about women, Jews, poor people and Haiti seven years ago, while he was co-executive producer of “The Price Is Right” and hosting a podcast called “The Randumb Show.”

McNear, the author of “Answers in the Form of Questions,” a book about the “Jeopardy!” franchise, says she reviewed all 41 episodes of the podcast, which was billed as a behind-the-scenes look at “The Price Is Right.” NBC News has not listened to the original recordings, which appear to have been pulled offline.

Richards, for his part, apologized and said in a statement on Wednesday evening: “It’s more than clear that my attempts to be funny and provocative were not acceptable.”

The firestorm was highly unusual for a program that was virtually synonymous with Trebek’s sober-minded bearing and above-the-fray style — and largely exempt from the cultural feuds and cycles of controversy that have lately engulfed the internet.

The fan reaction

In the days before Richards announced he would step down, NBC News interviewed “Jeopardy!” die-hards across the U.S. who expressed mixed opinions about the new emcee and the future of the franchise.

Amy Bornmann, a director in the corporate office of a timeshare management company in Orlando, is such a loyal “Jeopardy!” viewer that she figures she spent more time in the virtual company of Trebek than with some of her own family members. When she tuned in for the series of guest-host tryouts earlier this year, Bornmann was impressed by Richards’ confidence and easy command of the answer-and-question format.

“Honestly, I had him pegged at the top of my list, even though I kept referring to him as ‘What’s his name?’ because nobody knew his name. It made sense because he’s so intimately familiar with the show. It was comfortable for him to step in,” Bornmann said in an interview.

“It was just so natural for Mike Richards. He knew the right pacing, how to get through the questions, how to get the contestants to move along,” she added.

Bornmann, 45, said the recent headlines about Richards made her second-guess whether he is the best choice, although she added she would have “100 percent” continued to watch the show if he had remained in the job.

But some fans believed that while Richards might have been trying to signal contrition for his past behavior, the “optics” of his accession to the syndicated TV throne were still deeply unfortunate.

Eric Seader, who records “Jeopardy!” on his DVR every night and watches it with his wife during dinner, said he believed the show’s producers demonstrated poor judgment in allowing Richards to be chosen for one of the most coveted hosting gigs in television.

“I think, in 2021, it’s incredibly tone-deaf for any media organization to even consider somebody who might have a controversial past,” Seader, 42, said. “I’m sure we all have stuff in our past that would be offensive to somebody, but given the diversity of the guest hosts,” producers could have gone in a different direction.

Seader, a technical consultant who works with law firms and lives in New Jersey, said he was far more impressed with the guest-hosting stints by Burton, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, ABC News personality Robin Roberts, sportscaster Joe Buck, and “TODAY” show co-host Savannah Guthrie. (“TODAY” is produced by NBC News.)

“They introduced all these guest hosts who were excellent, but then the guy who has the controlling stake basically says, ‘I’m going to keep doing it.’ The optics are terrible, and I don’t really see any positive spin that could be on it,” Seader said.

In a 2018 interview with TMZ’s Harvey Levin, Trebek identified two potential replacements: Laura Coates, a legal analyst for CNN, and Alex Faust, the play-by-play announcer for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. Neither served as guest hosts this past season.

The new season of the show started production in mid-August. It was expected to debut on Sept. 13.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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