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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
Then Van Doren’s collaborator in fraud, Al Freedman—who had relocated to Mexico City—described in closed session how he had persuaded ‘Twenty-One” contestants to lie to the New York grand jury, suborning perjury, a serious crime. Art Franklin, Enright’s publicity agent, supplied a telling glimpse into Enright’s own captivity to quiz-show greed. Confronted by Franklin with Stempel’s teary story of the dive he was going to take, “Enright blinked his eyes at me almost as if he were a schizophrenic. Just looked and said there was nothing he could do about it.” Enright, too, testified mainly in secret session: CONCEDES FIXING QUIZES FOR “MANY YEARS.” After such testimony Gould of the Times was no longer blithe. The former quiz “fuss” was now, in his view, “symptomatic of the age of corner cutting.” A Columbia philosophy professor was soon to call it a “parable” of the time.
In public no one as yet had called Charles Van Doren a quiz-show cheat, but that would come. On Wednesday, October 7, the subcommittee invited Van Doren by telegram to testify voluntarily the next day. NBC warned him that he faced suspension if he failed to appear. “My life and career, it appeared, were being swept away in a flood,” Van Doren later testified. Instead of appearing, however, he vanished. “I simply ran away. There were a dozen newsmen outside my door and I was running from them, too.” With his wife he fled to New England, seeking “some conclusion,” he said, in the lovely fall foliage and driving “aimlessly from one town to another.” But he found no solace in the woodland’s heartless beauty, no courage in New England’s self-respecting little towns. “I still could not face up to what I had done.” All through that sad and pitiful flight, Van Doren still tried to persuade himself that confession would “betray” all the teachers and students who had expressed their faith in the former “wizard of quiz.”
Meanwhile, Van Doren’s absence was becoming increasingly suspicious. “In New York efforts to reach Mr. Van Doren tonight were unavailing,” the Times reported on Friday. On Saturday it offered a “Man in the News” portrait of the “Now Silent Quiz Star.” More bluntly, a Washington newspaper headline demanded to know: WHERE’S CHARLIE? When Van Doren failed to appear on Capitol Hill—or anywhere else—on Monday, questions about his whereabouts turned into a national uproar and set off a frenzy in the press. An appalling thought was beginning to form in the minds of millions of Van Doren’s well-wishers: “TV’s own health-restoring antidote to Presley” seemed to be in headlong flight from Congress, from the light, from the truth. Van Doren and the quiz scandals were becoming as one.
That Monday evening, October 12, Van Doren telephoned his lawyer (who privately feared for his client’s sanity) and learned that the Harris subcommittee had issued a subpoena ordering him to testify on November 2. The string had finally run out. Van Doren returned to New York, held an evasive news conference before an angry, shouting press corps, eluded pursuing reporters in midtown traffic, and eventually retired to his father’s country place in Connecticut. There he sat down to write at length the true story of what he had done from the fateful day when he took a test for “Tic-Tac-Dough” until two days after his return from New England, when he finally found the courage to speak the truth.
“I would give almost anything 1 have to reverse the course of my life in the last 3 years.” So Charles Lincoln Van Doren began his ninety-five-minute recantation before an audience as large as any the caucus room had ever held. Looking at the speaker’s haggard face and red-rimmed eyes, few in the audience could doubt the sincerity of Van Doren’s remorse or the tears it had cost him to compose his account of fraud and venality, self-delusion and cowardice. It is “the stuff of an electronic-age morality play,” wrote a young New York Times reporter named Russell Baker for the next day’s paper. It was “the most soul-searching confession I think I have seen in a long time,” said one of the many committee members who rushed forward to welcome the repentant sinner back to the fold, while the caucus room audience loudly applauded. “There but for the grace of not having been asked to appear on “Twenty-One’ may go all together too many of us,” said the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, expressing the good-natured sentiments of countless millions of Americans.