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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
Far grimmer and fiercer than Stoney Jackson, and with a far more scandalous story to tell, Herb Stempel, too, knocked on newspaper doors. A few reporters were intrigued, but libel lawyers look askance at the unsupported allegations of frenzied hysterics, and Stempel was truly hysterical. He “would stop people in the streets and tell them the sad story,” recalled Enright’s publicity agent. Tormented by envy and jealousy, Stempel was obsessively—and dangerously—persistent. Enright took steps to neutralize him. With the promise of a job as a “program consultant” dangling in the air, Enright invited Stempel for a meeting in his office. There, with a tape recorder secretly running, Enright got the distraught Stempel to say he was emotionally deranged, financially embarrassed, and guilty of blackmailing Enright.
Just to clear the air, said the producer, “I want you to write a piece of paper now to the effect that contrary to what you have said in the past, or written in the past, Dan Enright has at no time disclosed questions, answers, points, anything like it.” Poor, hapless Stempel, longing to reenter the television Eden, duly complied. Enright, triumphant, was kindness itself. “Herb, you’re sitting at home in the evening and something starts to gnaw you. …”
“Call you up.”
“Call me up.” And “go to a psychiatrist five days a week, not twice”—at Barry and Enright’s expense. All through the interview, however, the envy-racked Stempel could see displayed on Enright’s desk Time’s cover portrait of Van Doren, mocking the mock kindness of Enright. Nor did any “consultant” job ever materialize. With the incriminating tape locked in a bank vault, Enright felt he had nothing further to fear from Herb, whom he evidently regarded, with some justification, as little more than an ungrateful wretch. Nobody else gave the show’s producers trouble. Out of twenty or so contestants singled out for collusion on “Twenty-One,” Freedman later boasted to his congressional questioners, not one ostensibly respectable citizen ever turned him down.
It was not until May 20, 1958, that the quiz empire suffered its first wounding blow, the weapon forged in the dressing room of a new daytime quiz show called “Dotto”—“the game that turns dots into pictures and pictures into dollars.” The show’s current winner was stealthily peering into a notebook and being stealthily watched as she did so by the show’s current “standby,” the veteran contestant Eddie Hilgemeier. A few minutes later Hilgemeier’s practiced eye noted how genially the staff greeted its winner and how readily she trounced her latest challenger, an Osage Indian “princess.” In a trice Hilgemeier doubled back to the dressing room, opened the notebook, and found on the last page, which he duly tore out, the answers to the questions the winner had just been asked. “This is a fixed show,” he called out to the defeated princess, and the two of them stalked out of the studio, incriminating page in hand, to hire a lawyer and get what they could from the producers of “Dotto,” a certain Frank Cooper Associates. The princess (who was married to an atomic scientist) wanted justice, more or less, and quietly settled for four thousand dollars. Living on the humiliating margins of show business, Eddie Hilgemeier wanted something more: a place in the limelight. Thus, on August 7, executives at the Colgate-Palmolive Company, the sponsors of “Dotto,” were stunned to read an authoritative missive from Hilgemeier describing corrupt practices at “Dotto” and the hush money offered by its producers.
What turned the “fuss” into a boiling scandal was, at bottom, the Democrats’ determination to regain political power.
On August 16 the frightened sponsors and a frightened CBS abruptly canceled the show, hoping that nobody would ask why a hugely successful quiz program should be pulled off the air without a word of explanation. Alas for the quiz empire, New York County’s district attorney, Frank Hogan, was about to become the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. On August 25, 1958—the very eve of his nomination—the DA’s office announced that it was investigating “Dotto.” The Times put the story on page 59—a mere video trifle. Nevertheless, as Time magazine saw at once, the whole quiz lineup “was suddenly suspect.”
Far worse was that hysterical Herb Stempel was suddenly credible. On August 28 two New York afternoon newspapers at long last blazoned forth Stempel’s story of collusion and fraud on “Twenty-One” and the launching of Charles Van Doren through his rival’s compulsory dive. Stoney Jackson’s lesser story saw daylight, too, a few days later.
Behind the scenes panic swept through the ranks of Barry and Enright. Van Doren was terrified. “The news of Stempel’s charges was like a blow, I was horrorstruck.” Stempel’s charges, moreover, set deadly machinery in motion. “Twenty-One,” too, would be investigated, Hogan announced at once; a special grand jury would be convened, he announced two weeks later.