February 28, 2018

"Don't be a fool"

Back again this week is Jodie Peeler, author of the Garroway at Large website, wrapping up her February guest stint on It's About TV! with this thoughtful look at the Quiz-Show Scandal of the '50s.  It fits right in with what we've been talking about lately. I think you'll enjoy it.

by Jodie Peeler

Back in 1992 the PBS series The American Experience aired an hour-long documentary about the quiz-show scandal of the 1950s. For those who love television history, it was a treasure: plenty of clips from the handful of surviving kinescopes, still images from network publicity files and magazine archives, and interviews with key figures in the story (several of whom passed away not long after filmmaker Julian Krainin interviewed them).

Krainin was also able to get the cooperation of a few contestants who appeared on the rigged programs, including the Rev. Stoney Jackson, James Snodgrass (whose letters describing his instructions on how to handle himself on Twenty One, sent to himself via registered mail, were key evidence in the investigation), and Herbert Stempel, the contestant who "lost" to Charles Van Doren on Twenty One. But Van Doren, the most prominent contestant from the scandal, didn't participate.

Much has been written about the quiz show scandals in general and Charles Van Doren in particular, and after he admitted during a 1959 Congressional hearing that he had been one of the rigged contestants, Van Doren mostly dropped out of sight. He continued to write and teach, and every once in a while appeared on television in conjunction with one of his projects. He even appeared on Today in December 1985 to promote his book The Joy of Reading, and during the interview the quiz scandals didn’t come up.

In 2008 Van Doren finally broke his long silence with a lengthy essay in The New Yorker. Among the revelations was that when he told his soon-to-be wife in 1956 that he was going to be on a quiz show, she didn't like the idea; three and a half decades later, she was likewise cool to Krainin's entreaties on the documentary. "I think you're being foolish," she told Charles as they discussed the proposal. Later, when Krainin extended a $100,000 offer from Robert Redford to be a consultant on the movie Quiz Show, Gerry was again cool to the idea: "Please don't be a fool." In the end, Charles took her counsel and resisted the temptation.

In these times it seems quaint to imagine someone refusing to cash in on a moment of infamy. If someone confessed to cheating on a game show these days, we'd hardly blink; within days, said cheater would be getting book contracts and endorsement deals, a cameo in a Saturday Night Live sketch (if not a guest-hosting gig), and maybe even their own reality series. But in 1959 Van Doren found himself going from hero to punchline, with Columbia University relieving him of his teaching duties and NBC firing him from his gig on Today. Dave Garroway wept on the air as he dealt with the news about Van Doren, whom he had come to consider not only a valuable contributor to the program but also a good friend. The illusion was shattered, and the nice young man who symbolized intelligence and read poetry on national television turned out to be as susceptible to temptation as any of the rest of us.

But as the news settled in, it became apparent the ones really being fooled were ourselves, and for the most dangerous reason: because we allowed ourselves to be fooled. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who had been Mark Van Doren's student at Columbia University and maintained a friendship with him, struggled with the revelations. In a letter to Mark Van Doren, Merton wrote that the younger Van Doren was "seduced into impersonating himself, in order to please and comfort this foolish, and pitifully foolish, nation with a day-dream of itself....America wants to be kidded and the only crime is letting the people know, realize, the falsity. We are such babies that we want our unrealities to be real and the only thing we resent is the reminder that they are not."

People had sunk so much effort into believing in Charles Van Doren's innocence that to deny this, to admit he had cheated, would not only negate all that belief, but reveal something about themselves that would be unsettling and disturbing. But, beneath that, how much of it was being manipulated, and how much of it was wanting to be manipulated? How much of the quiz show craze was really about watching average people display incredible knowledge, and how much of it was, as Martin Scorsese's businessman in Quiz Show put it, about wanting to "watch the money?"

And has this ever really changed? When the big-money game shows came back (albeit in non-rigged form), they drew a following. It wasn't because Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? required you to know a lot of trivia or because Deal Or No Deal required a gambler's sense of risk. Certainly the gimmicks helped - as The $64,000 Question had its IBM sorting machine and its isolation booth, so Deal had the array of models with briefcases. And the dramatics - the music, the theatrical lighting, the catchphrases, the timing. Some combined the drama with humiliation, as contestants on The Weakest Link gladly let themselves be verbally abused for a chance at a big prize. Others, like Survivor and the countless other reality competition shows it spawned, let us watch along as contestants acted out Lord Of The Flies for our enjoyment.

But it's an illusion. The average game of Deal Or No Deal or Millionaire would have taken five minutes, but was sliced thinner than prosciutto to fill an hour's time, build suspense and keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Reality shows craftily edit hours of footage, stripping context and truth in favor of maximum conflict and drama. No matter how the contestants fare, the hosts and producers and staff get paid either way. And yet, even when we know we're being manipulated, we still tune in. It's too tempting. What if it was me playing for that million? What if I was able to outwit everyone else on the island? The Walter Mitty in all of us enjoys the fantasy too much.

Maybe after all these years of scandal after scandal wearing us down, with everything in life from our television programs being less than they seem to be, to a long list of evangelists being revealed as frauds, to the clay feet of business and government leaders being exposed, we'd respond to a modern quiz-show scandal with a hardened, cynical shrug. We’d watch the offending contestant milk his or her fame for all it was worth, turning infamy into C- or D-list stardom, because doing what Charles Van Doren did - taking your lumps, retreating into exile, quietly working to rebuild your name in an honorable way – would mean missing out on an opportunity to cash in. (“Don’t be a fool” is such a quaint notion in our times, isn’t it?) Then we’d shift our attention to the next thing and gnaw it down to the marrow, because there’s always a next thing.

How much of that daydream Thomas Merton warned about turned into our reality? And is it that we no longer resent reminders that it’s unreal, or is it more that we’re hardened to the unreality itself? Perhaps I’ll think about it later. Right now, there’s this really great new show I want to watch…. TV  


  1. Very well stated. Things have not changed much in 60+ years.

    1. I don't often get a chance to comment on the content of the blog because, well, I write it. But I think you're absolutely right - this is a terrific piece, because it's a practical illustration of the idea that even intelligence can be commodified for our viewing pleasure.

      It also speaks to Charles Van Doren's dignified way of retreating from the spotlight, "taking his lumps," as Jodie puts it, rather than what happens so many times nowadays - selling a "redemption narrative" that essentially turns the original scandal into a marketing ploy.

      It may well be that this is the original sin of television, that it was inherent from the moment the medium conflated with the post-war boom and that its evolution into what we have today was inevitable. Rather than giving up though, as the proponents of the abolition of television have proposed, I believe it calls for discernment on the part of the viewer. And that's going to tell us more than simply what you like to watch - it speaks to what's inside you: your values, your sense of what's important in life, the kind of stuff you're made of. Gerry Van Doren didn't develop her values as a response to television; they were already there to begin with. Perhaps that's where the true answer lies.

  2. I read that Van Doren interview a few years ago and, rightly or wrongly, picked up a feeling of self-righteousness from the Van Dorens, as though they, unlike Stempel, were too good to take $ for their participation in "Quiz Show" or anything else related to TWENTY-ONE. Of course I'm sure they didn't need $ as much as Stempel did.

  3. A very interesting piece.

    In 1959, until he got embroiled in the quiz-show scandal, didn't NBC come close to replacing Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the network nightly news with Charles VanDoren?

    1. Anonymous:

      This is a TV Urban Legend.

      Huntley and Brinkley had just taken the nightly news lead from CBS at that point; no reason to replace them.
      NBC was grooming Van Doren to take over The Today Show, as Dave Garroway was starting to show signs of coming unglued.
      You might recall how Garroway almost lost it on air when the scandal broke; he'd genuinely liked Van Doren, and the confession to Congress hit him hard.
      You might also recall how much trouble NBC had when Garroway finally did leave, in finding a good replacement for him - but that's another story ...


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