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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
Van Doren the man and the sinner became Van Doren the symptom and symbol of a national venality.
Nevertheless, it was the stern and unforgiving voices that prevailed in what the Times called “the flood of reactions” to Van Doren’s confession. Columbia University, for one, fired its young professor before the day was over, “effective immediately.” NBC followed suit the next day. Arthur Krock, a political columnist for the Times, condemned “the soft bog of open condonement for the uncondonable.” Jack Gould, now thoroughly blitheless, condemned “the emotional wave of sympathy for Mr. Van Doren.” The Chicago Tribune spoke sternly of Van Doren’s “spectacular sell-out.” The Wall Street Journal called the confession a “crushing blow” to the country.
Having praised Van Doren too highly, Time was peculiarly savage now. It assailed without mercy Van Doren’s moving confession, described it as “riddled” with “pomposity, self-pity and self-dramatization.” The weekly magazine decried the “Senator Claghorn sentimentality” of the forgiving congressmen, as did much of the press around the country. Complacency was vanishing with a vengeance. “I’ve received hundreds of letters from all over the country,” District Attorney Hogan remarked to the press, “and speaking as a person I’m amazed at the great percentage that is vindictive and almost sadistic.”
Van Doren the man and the sinner quickly became Van Doren the symptom and symbol. “The Van Doren episode, bad as it is,” noted the Times on November 3, “is but symptomatic of a disease in the radio and television world. …” And of a malady far more widespread than that. According to the Atlanta Journal, Van Doren was the symptom of “the frantic urge to make a fast buck … a kind of disease that’s eating away at the moral tone of our nation.” The New Yorker marveled at how easily not only Van Doren but a throng of respectable Americans had been turned into “paid cheats.” It marveled, too, that “in all this multitude [there was] not one snag, not one audible bleat, not one righteous refusal that made the news.” On November 5 the district attorney offered still more shocking news about the state of America’s civic morality. Of the 150 witnesses who had testified under oath before the grand jury, about 100 of them, he estimated, had committed perjury (including Van Doren, who later pleaded guilty to the crime). Nevertheless, nobody involved with the scandal ever suffered formal legal punishment of any kind.
What kind of country had America become? What kind of people were we producing? A people who suffered from the the want of public spirit, said the Secretary of State, Christian Herter. A people who lacked sufficient institutions that “embody public purposes,” who despoiled their lives in getting and spending, wrote Charles Frankel, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, in the November 15 issue of The New York Times Magazine. We were a people who no longer adhered to “objective standards,” wrote the distinguished political scientist Hans Morgenthau as the debate and the self-examining raged on. “The Van Doren case is a great event in the history of America,” wrote Morgenthau in the harshest appraisal of all. Van Doren was “formed by a world which condones the betrayal of truth for the sake of wealth and power. …” By “refusing to condemn Van Doren [America] … convicts itself of a moral obtuseness which signifies the beginning of the end of civilized society.”
As it turned out, the extraordinary outburst of soul-searching brought on by the “Van Doren case” signified something far different from that. It helped put an end to an age of unmerited smugness and it helped usher in a new and difficult period when Americans tried, at least for a time, to live up to the stern standards of the American Republic. The quiz-show scandals were only a small black cloud in the late-afternoon skies of the Eisenhower years, but even small clouds have their silver linings.
As for Charles Van Doren, he was not to enjoy the “great future” that Chairman Harris, in the emotional wake of his confession, had fulsomely assured him he would have. Van Doren has lived a quiet life and an honorable one as an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as an executive of the company, and as a modest champion of educational reform. Given his native gifts and advantages, it has been, perhaps a diminished life, but not, I hope, too blighted by vain regrets.