“Thank you for reaching out regarding your concern over a Jeapardy [sic] contestant flashing what you believed to be a white power hand signal,” wrote Aaron Ahlquist, of the A.D.L., according to text posted to the group by the contestant who had emailed the group. “We have reviewed the tape and it looks like he is simply holding up three fingers when they say he is a three-time champion. We do not interpret his hand signal to be indicative of any ideology. However, we are grateful to you for raising your concern, and please do not hesitate to contact us in the future should the need arise.”
The A.D.L.’s response provoked fury among former contestants who had signed the letter.
“Is anyone else feeling gaslit?” asked one two-time champion, according to the screenshots. “We saw it. We know we did. But a lot of people (including the goddamned ADL) are telling us we didn’t. That’s some classic gaslighting.”
These are, I should stress again, a bunch of nice, thoughtful people. I found them mostly on LinkedIn, where they tend to have well-curated profiles and avatars of themselves against the show’s blue backdrop. The signers of the letter I spoke to seemed convinced that Mr. Donohue had been flashing a white power sign of some sort. They were particularly concerned that producers had missed it — and that the show, reeling from the death of its iconic host, Alex Trebek, might be “in decline,” as a 2007 champion from northern Canada, Brett Chandler, told me.
Mr. Chandler was one of several letter signers I spoke to who remained convinced that the other traces of Mr. Donohue’s online presence, as well as his use of the word “Gypsy” in an earlier episode, meant he was sending a coded signal. Many said that, even as they acknowledged how improbable it seemed.
“He wouldn’t have known he was going to win three, so the logic falls apart a little bit there,” Mr. Chandler said.
The letter’s main co-authors asked not to be named because they feared harassment on social media. One, a lawyer, said in a LinkedIn message that the letter’s “overarching point is that the production staff should have headed off this controversy” by editing out the gesture. That interpretation requires a pretty careful reading of the letter, which began with a focus on Mr. Donohue and included speculation about the significance of a photograph of Frank Sinatra on his personal Facebook page.
I should stress again that these are smart people, who were in general more polite than the journalists who reluctantly take my calls most weeks. And that, I think, is the point here. The contestants’ investigations of Mr. Donohue had all the signal traits of a normal social media hunt gone awry — largely, that you assume your conclusion and go looking for evidence. And they followed the deep partisan grooves of contemporary politics, in which liberals believed the absolute worst of a Trump supporter. But they also contained a thread of real conspiracy thinking — not just that racism is a source of Trumpian politics, but that apparently ordinary people are communicating through secret signals. It reflects a depth of alienation among Americans, in which our warring tribes squint through the fog at one another for mysterious and abstruse signs of malice.