Monday, August 25, 2008

Revisiting the Quiz Show Scandal

By Mitchell

Yes, it's been a little quiet here this month. Kristen is in the process of getting settled after moving, Steve has been busy at work, Drew has something going but it's not done yet, and we've been busy with other projects. It's been up to Bobby to carry the workload, which he has done admirably. Hopefully, things will pick up a bit after Labor Day.

Having said that, has anyone seen last month's article in the The New Yorker by Charles Van Doren? The former television sensation has finally broken his nearly half-century silence to discuss his role in the infamous quiz show scandals of the late 50s.

Most people familiar with Van Doren today probably get the bulk of their information either from the excellent PBS documentary of the mid 90s, or from Robert Redford's very good movie Quiz Show, which starred Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Tuturro as the tortured Herb Stempel, whose rigged "defeat" on the game show Twenty One would eventually lead to the unravelling of the scandal. And while both the documentary and the movie are very good at whetting one's appetite for more information, anyone truly interested in the time would be doing themselves a disservice were they to accept these versions - particuarly the Redford movie - as definitive renditions of the truth.

I have to admit that I've always admired Charles Van Doren. I know that sounds odd, to say that one admires a man who was an admitted cheat and fraud who - at least for a time - benefitted greatly from that deception. And one could also argue that the era of the quiz show scandals introduced a cynicism into popular culture that has only grown in the decades since.

But it should be pointed out that celebrity has always been based on deception, and that Van Doren was neither the first nor the last to be publicly exposed as being not quite what everyone thought him to be. And while the modern celebrity often uses his misdeed to rejuvinate his career - think Jimmy Swaggert's embarrassingly tearful television, or Hugh Grant's charmingly roguish fess-up on the Jay Leno show - there was something different about Van Doren, particularly in his reaction to the scandal.

Van Doren had gained greatly from his TV triumph, and not only in terms of money. Van Doren won well over $100,000 from his stint on Twenty-One, appeared on the cover of Time, and joined NBC's Today show. With his obvious intelligence, his boyish good looks, and his engaging personality (not to mention his distinguised background - teacher at Columbia, son of the poet Mark Van Doren, and nephew of the historian Carl Van Doren), he was the perfect made-for-TV star. The world was, indeed, his oyster.

Consequently, Van Doren's fall from grace, culminating in his appearance before a U.S. House committee investigating the scandals, was equally spectacular. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, lost his position at Columbia and his job at NBC, lost his good name and the affection of the public. But what made Van Doren unique was his acceptance of his fall. Unlike today's celebrities, he did not attempt to cash-in on his infamy. There were no tearful appeals for forgiveness, no accusations of persecution, no attempt to portray himself as an innocent victim taken advantage of by others. He didn't write a tell-all book trying to explain it away, he didn't go on talk shows to rehabilitate his image. Van Doren simply accepted his exile as being appropriate punishment for his deception, and disappeared from view. He became an editor at Encyclopaedia Brittanica, wrote several scholarly books (including some under his own name), and continued teaching, which he does even to this day. And until last month, he never spoke publicly about what had happened.

Van Doren on Twenty-One

In his New Yorker article, Van Doren for the first time gives his side of the story, as well as recounting various attempts to lure him back into the public eye. While he clearly shows how the staff of Twenty-One manipulated the results of the show, he does not attempt to avoid blame for his own role in the scandal. Perhaps most remarkably, he candidly discusses his struggle with the seductive nature of fame and fortune. In particular, he relates how Julian Krainin, writer and co-producer of the PBS documentary on the scandal, had approached him in 1990 and dangled before him the idea that Van Doren should host a series on PBS about the great philosophers. It was a seductive idea, he readily admits, in part because it was a program he would easily have been able to handle.

She offered similar advice when Van Doren was approached for a much more lucrative deal by Krainin, who was now working with Robert Redford on the movie that would become Quiz Show. The deal this time: $100,000 in return for a statement by Van Doren attesting to the movie's “guarantee of its truthfulness." It was a very tempting offer; as Van Doren pointed out to his wife, the movie would be made with or without his cooperation, so why not profit off of it? Her response: “Please don’t be a fool.” Ultimately, Van Doren turned down both offers, but the article provides a stark and honest self-assessment by Van Doren of his own vulnerabilities, and an acknowledgement that had he taken his wife's advice in the first place, his role in the scandal never would have happened.

Van Doren also provides some very interesting insights into his relationship with his father Mark. I always thought that Paul Scofield's portrayal of the elder Van Doren in Quiz Show was one of the movie's highlights: thoughtful, human and humane, very touching. As is often the case, the real Mark Van Doren was even more impressive. Father and son never overtly discussed the scandal (unlike the portrayal in the movie), but in his son's telling, there is no question that Mark knows his son well enough to know exactly what happened. Van Doren's depiction of his relationship with his father is a moving one.

We all knew that Quiz Show had inaccuracies, like most movies that purport to tell a true story. Jeff Hart, an editor at National Review and friend of the Van Doren family, wrote a scathing review regarding the fabrications in the father-son relationship, among other things. And then there's the gross overstatement of the role Dick Goodwin played, virtually ignoring the pioneering work done by the Manhattan D.A.'s office. Nonetheless, Quiz Show excels on its own merits as a fine period piece, a movie that gives insight into a remarkable period in our cultural history; perhaps we were more naïve than we are now, perhaps less, but we were certainly different.

It is, however, in Van Doren's own story that we finally get his own account of what actually happened. That's not to say that his story should be taken at face value any more than that of anyone else, but the self-facing, unsparing way in which he presents his own faults and weaknesses, does lend an air of authenticity.

In the end, Charles Van Doren's role in the quiz show scandals was not a noble one, but he has never tried to present it otherwise - and there is something quite noble about that.

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