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The Quiz-Show Scandal
Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions in advance.
May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
Between November 28, 1956, and March 11 of the following year, Charles Van Doren was by far the most popular, the most lauded, the most talked-about person on television. Twenty thousand admiring letters poured in on him. He gave out press interviews to some five hundred reporters and appeared frequently as a guest on other television shows. He had to hire a secretary—whom he later married—to handle his mail and a talent agency to cope with all the book, lecture, and movie contracts that were waved in his face. He was the pride of the nation’s teachers, a model for schoolchildren, “so likeable,” wrote a Chicago television critic, “that he has come to be a ‘friend’ whose weekly visits the whole family eagerly anticipates.”
There was not the slightest shadow of a doubt about the honesty of the program. “A nation breathed each breath with Charles,” wrote Gould of the Times, “and went out and bought another vial of Geritol.” Here was “a new kind of TV idol—of all things, an egghead … whom many a grateful parent regards as TV’s own health-restoring antidote to Presley.” So Time put it in its ultimate accolade to Charles Van Doren, a cover story on the “wizard of quiz” in its issue of February 11, 1957. “Clamped in a vise of earphones, the eyes roll heavenward and squeeze shut, the brow sweats and furrows, the teeth gnaw at the lower lip” as the nation sits enthralled by “the fascinating, suspense-taut spectacle of his highly trained mind at work”—coming up with answers Al Freedman had given him the day before.
How could Van Doren bear such grotesquely unmerited renown—unmerited except for his histrionic skills? The falsity of his position pained him —“made me terribly uncomfortable,” he said years later. The fraudulence frightened him. “I didn’t know what to do nor where to turn and, frankly, I was very much afraid. I told Freedman of my fears and misgivings, and I asked him several times to release me from the program.” From the wild roller coaster he was riding, however, there was no ready escape until Enright had squeezed every last drop of “entertainment” out of him.
Ashamed and fearful, on the one hand, and powerfully tempted, on the other, Van Doren took refuge in high-minded humbug. Over and over he told himself “that it did not matter what I was doing because it was having such a good effect on the national attitude to teachers, education, and the intellectual life.” Nor did he spurn the immense rewards of venality: $129,000 in prize money after his prearranged defeat at the hands of a woman lawyer—“more money than I had ever made or ever dreamed of making”—followed three weeks later by a $50,000 annual contract with NBC, a magnificent stipend in 1957, and withal a chance to make amends (in his own mind) by appearing each morning on the “Today” show to offer genuine culture and learning to the millions. A few weeks after that, Enright, too, reaped the rewards of his daring plunge into fraud when NBC bought all Barry and Enright “properties”—quiz and game shows—for approximately two million dollars.
Everything was going splendidly. The “quiz empire,” as the Times called it, seemed impregnable, although behind the scenes the manipulations of the producers were growing steadily more crude, the favored winners correspondingly less innocent. There was a momentary stir of peril when a showgirl named Dale Logue, posing as an astronomy expert, sued “The Big Surprise” because a question she had missed in the warm-up session was used again to trip her up on the air—the quiz-show equivalent of the old vaudeville hook. But the suit made no real mark. There was “showmanship” on many of the quiz shows, Time conceded in April 1957, but “without collusion with the contestants.” Look magazine in August was equally reassuring: there was “control” but “no TV quiz shows are fixed in the sense of being dishonest.”
In the complacency of the Eisenhower era, the country was extremely loath to think ill of the quiz shows, as the Reverend Mr. Jackson discovered to his wonderfully comical dismay. On December 29, 1957, he appeared on “The $64,000 Challenge” as an expert in “great lovers” of literature (after weeks of diligent cramming). To his righteous dismay he found himself asked on the air the same obscure question to which he had been given the answer in the rehearsal session. For a split second he thought he would shout out the truth to the world, the garrulous cleric later told members of Congress, “but I could see my bullet-riddled body as I passed an alley somewhere.” Instead, he sent a wire to Time, “thinking that I wouldn’t have to wait but a few minutes until the phone rang. …” It never did. He wrote to The New York Times, but nothing came of it. Closer to home, Jackson urged his story on the publisher of the local semiweekly to which “Stoney” himself contributed a sports column. “Don’t be an idiot,” the publisher replied. He told his tale of fraudulence to his congregation; nobody cared. He told it to local civic groups; nobody cared. “Will you keep your mouth shut and let it go,” was the general Tullahoma consensus.