- Historic Sites
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
A time bomb had begun ticking, yet strange to say, it would take a full year before it finally exploded. Talk of a scandal was slight, national soulsearching nonexistent. The Reverend Mr. Jackson’s neighbors mainly regarded him, he said, as “an unmitigated traitorous bum.” Sinking deeper and deeper into a moral quagmire, Van Doren denied Stempel’s charges at once on the “Today” show. He then told the United Press flatly that “at no time was I coached or tutored.” Reassured by the persuasive Enright, NBC declared Stempel’s charges “utterly baseless and untrue.” On September 2 the indignant producer invited the press to the Hotel Biltmore to hear Stempel exonerate kindly “Dan Enright” and admit to attempted blackmail. With the deceivers closing ranks, Gould of the Times, normally a caustic critic, spoke blithely of “the present fuss over quiz shows” and saw nothing of consequence in the “flurry” save the welcome “fall of the quiz empire.” Not a single quiz-scandal story appeared on the front page of the Times in 1958. A year later scarcely a single quiz story would appear anywhere else.
What transformed the “fuss” into a boiling scandal was, at bottom, the Democratic party’s determination to break the national crust of complacency and regain its lost political power. One major breach was actually made just as the quiz “fuss” was fading into seeming oblivion. On September 23, 1958, revelations of favoritism and bribery unearthed by the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight had driven the President’s self-righteous assistant Sherman Adams from his White House post. Irregularities at the Federal Communications Commission had started the subcommittee on Adams’s trail; television, in any case, was one of its favorite topics. And here, in mid-1959, was the tainted quiz empire tantalizingly stuck in judicial limbo. On June 10, 1959, after nine months of hearing testimony, the New York grand jury had handed up a lengthy report on quiz rigging, which the presiding judge promptly “expunged” from existence to protect the dubious reputations of the not-so-innocent. Such haughty complacency no longer ruled. The public had a right to know “how much it had been duped,” Frank Hogan protested with uncommon vehemence. On July 30 the chairman of the oversight subcommittee, an Arkansas Democrat named Oren Harris, duly announced that he was going to uncover the facts about crooked quiz shows. Not a local DA and a local erand jury, but Congress in all its might, was going to train its spotlight on the murky quiz empire, by now virtually a thing of the past.
“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years.”
How many hearts must have frozen in fear when that announcement appeared on the front page of the Times! The very placement of the story was portentous. A few days later it was revealed that Chairman Harris planned to hold public hearings as well. “I had been living in dread for nearly 3 years,” Van Doren was to testify on November 2. “Now I became almost panic stricken.” No one had profited as spectacularly as Charles Van Doren from quiz-show fraudulence. Of those who profited, none were more esteemed than he; none were held to higher standards; none had protested innocence as often, as adamantly, or as publicly. No one. perforce, found the truth so crushing. “I could not bear to have my family, my friends and the general public know I had deceived them.” The truth stuck like a bone in his throat, while with each passing day the public eye turned more and more intently upon him until nobody else seemed to matter.
On Tuesday, October 6, the quizshow hearings began in the cavernous caucus room of the Old House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Herbert Stempel, looking notably trim, led off what Time later described as “a tawdry succession of fixers and schlockmeisters, corrupters and corrupted.” Triumphant at last, Stempel coolly exposed, among other matters, the cunning of Dan Enright. Then a “Twenty-One” contestant named James Snodgrass, an artist from New York City, unsealed in the caucus room a registered letter he had sent himself on May 11, 1957, describing exactly how he would name Disney’s Seven Dwarfs on the May 13 show. “I shall answer in this sequence — Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Happy (pause) the grouchy one, Grumpy (pause) Doc (pause) Bashful.” A kinescope recording of the show played at the hearing confirmed just how minutely rehearsed a ‘Twenty-One” show could be. TWO TESTIFY “21” QUIZ WAS FIXED was the Times’s front-page headline the next day.