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Van Doren Gives Answers
July 29, 2008 12:22 PM   Subscribe

When I stepped out the door of the caucus room, I saw a large crowd—members of the press, photographers, and bystanders. I realized that there was no way to avoid repeating my testimony. I was, I said, “foolish, naïve, prideful, and avaricious,” and added, “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.” Charles Van Doren breaks his silence on the cheating scandal that inspired the movie Quiz Show.
posted by Knappster (38 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
via
posted by Knappster at 12:23 PM on July 29, 2008


What an interesting story. Thanks for the post.
posted by Malor at 12:37 PM on July 29, 2008


a daily five-minute spot at the top of the hour in which to report on cultural and literary events; I read a great poem or two every Friday morning and talked about its author.

For me, that really drives home how much TV has changed over the years - can you imagine a poem (or two) being read regularly on network TV today?

Interesting story, thanks.
posted by never used baby shoes at 12:38 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Herb Stempel lives two doors down from me, and regularly challenges me to stump him with a question about almost anything from US history. I'm definitely slipping a copy of this under his door tonight. Thanks Knappster!
posted by adamms222 at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2008 [6 favorites]


Great read. Thanks for posting.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2008


He seems like a nice man.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2008


A former colleague of mine worked with him at Encyclopedia Britannica. She said he was somewhat cold but professionally cordial, and you absolutely, positively didn't mention anything about game shows or television to him. Nice to see he has opened up.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:13 PM on July 29, 2008


No kidding adamms222? Any interesting stories to share?
posted by starman at 1:16 PM on July 29, 2008


Loved him on The Price is Right.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:18 PM on July 29, 2008


The passivity of the article left a bad taste in my mouth. I enjoyed the movie when it came out and this has always been a fascinating subject to me. As such, I liked hearing a new recollection from a central figure. That said, he doesn't seem to see himself as someone who was in the wrong - merely as someone who somehow ended up in a complicated situation that ultimately came crashing down around him. I know there are people who think that this was a good thing for Americans, teaching them not to trust television. Perhaps the lesson was important but certainly one who leads on millions for personal gain is not a hero. While Van Doren doesn't claim heroic status, a little more contrition for how he disappointed others would have helped.
posted by allen.spaulding at 1:20 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I never saw Game Show, but I'd gotten the gist of the story of what happened over the years. I'm glad he finally wrote about the experience.

Great article and great post, Knappster.
posted by elfgirl at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2008


Well, he walked away from the $100,000 Redford contract. I've taken far less to do far cheesier things.
posted by mecran01 at 1:26 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


allen.spaulding: I had kind of the same reaction, but if I remember Quiz Show correctly, the movie treated Van Doren pretty much the same way. That is, as a bright, talented kid with great expectations around him who got caught up in something corrupt while trying to meet them, all the while everyone was assuring him that it was all just the nature of television.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:27 PM on July 29, 2008


Interesting story, but I can't get over how he just went along with the fixing. It doesn't seem like he was desperate for money or attention, so why didn't he object? At least he doesn't blame anyone for what happened, I guess, but you'd expect at least some token resistance.
posted by tommasz at 1:32 PM on July 29, 2008


"Each week, Stempel had been told what to do: how many points to choose, how to deliver his answers."

I don't follow.

They wanted him OFF the show, because he was unpopular -- yet they were coaching him to win?
posted by RavinDave at 1:35 PM on July 29, 2008


It doesn't seem like he was desperate for money or attention, so why didn't he object?

Ken Jennings addresses this point in his blog entry a bit (see the via link).
posted by inigo2 at 1:37 PM on July 29, 2008


They wanted him OFF the show, because he was unpopular -- yet they were coaching him to win?

It is addressed somewhat in the article: "a successful game show needed two distinct personalities, one unsympathetic and unattractive, the other the opposite." They kept Stemple around for a while because of this; then they brought in someone to unseat Van Doren, and so forth.
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:43 PM on July 29, 2008


Yeah, that was a bit confusing. What I took it to mean was that what they initially told Van Doren was that Stempel was unpopular and was causing the ratings to tank, so they wanted to cheat to bring him down. i.e. that Van Doren was the first fixed contestant.

That of course, was not the case Van Doren would later find out, and they had been coaching Stempel all the time too. If that's the case, he must not have really been causing the show to tank. They were just creating a character which would then make their "Van Doren" character all the more successful.

All that said, maybe it's my post-Watergate, post-modern, everything is irony acculturation, but I've never quite gotten what the fuss was about. Sure it was fake. Like wresting isn't, or American Idol isn't? I have friends who've worked on reality shows. They're not even remotely close to reality.
posted by Naberius at 2:04 PM on July 29, 2008


"Interesting story, but I can't get over how he just went along with the fixing. It doesn't seem like he was desperate for money or attention, so why didn't he object? At least he doesn't blame anyone for what happened, I guess, but you'd expect at least some token resistance."

I've lost count of the number of times I've done something that was avoidable, with a "what the hell did I do that for?" coming soon after. Sometimes the simple enticement of something, like money, is enough by itself, if it seems to be consequence free. Van Doren's accounting seems pretty credible, as often there isn't a dramatic internal struggle before we make stupid decisions.
posted by Benevolent Space Robot at 2:04 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


The passivity of the article left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'd be curious to know what motivated his writing it and the New Yorker to publish it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:08 PM on July 29, 2008


The passivity of the article left a bad taste in my mouth.

I have to agree. I don't feel the need to condemn him, but he seems to look on the episdes so distantly. Even when he relates being unsure what to say in interrogation - and unsure what others were saying - it's as though he's someone else watching the events.
posted by Miko at 2:17 PM on July 29, 2008


Not sure I buy the agonizing family conference at the very end. Sounded a bit artificial. Probably a pretty simple decision to make(*) -- he didn't want to appear "for sale" again. Though it is ironic that he turned down more in a consulting fee than he made on the original show.

==========
(*)Granted "I" couldn't punt that much money.
posted by RavinDave at 2:21 PM on July 29, 2008


I see the date of the youtube (via adamms:222) link is March 20, 2008. Was there a period of silence each man was sworn to? Looks like its been almost 50 years.
posted by threadbare at 2:34 PM on July 29, 2008


RavinDave writes "They wanted him OFF the show, because he was unpopular -- yet they were coaching him to win?"

They (Al Freedman, Jack Barry (born Jack Barasch), and Dan Enright ((born Daniel Ehrenreich)) wanted the slubby working class Jew dressed in too-tight suits, Herb Stempel, to be bested by the urbane intellectual Columbia "professor" whose dabbled in chamber music and whose name included an "aristocratic" "van" in it.

It was 1956. The Ivy League still had a Jewish quota, but post-war America was changing in unsettling ways. The youth were listening to "Negro" music (though sanitized by its appropriation by white artists) full of thumping and not-so-veiled references to sex acts. The lower classes, having served in World War Two, were making full use of the GI Bill. Black ex-servicemen were asking why they could fight and die in Europe but couldn't sit at a dinner in Georgia. Hollywood has long been dominated by Jewish ex-Vaudevilians on film and Jewish moguls running the studios, but only their anglicanized names rolled with the credits on screens of the Peoria Cinemaplex.

Reassuring white America sold advertisers and it sold soap; Herb Stempel didn't, except in a stammering loss to the comfortable old order.
posted by orthogonality at 2:45 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Okay, here's the American Experience transcript that Herb Stempel's wikipedia article quotes several times. There's a lot of background in there, including the tidbit that Stempel took his big dive on the question "What motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?". (Correct answer was "Marty" - "one of his favorite movies".)

So Herb Stempel was the guest of honor at the College Bowl national quiz championship in '97. He rushed through a talk about "Twenty-One", then gleefully challenged the assembled triviologists to stump him with a question. Some punk kid, probably from Harvard, stood up.

"What motion picture won the Palme d'Or for 1955?"

Herb Stempel stared at him. He cleared his throat uncertainly. Somewhere, the baby Jesus cried.
posted by ormondsacker at 2:47 PM on July 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't feel the need to condemn him, but he seems to look on the episdes so distantly. Even when he relates being unsure what to say in interrogation - and unsure what others were saying - it's as though he's someone else watching the events.

To be fair, it was 50 years ago. He's had a full life, and he's not that person anymore. It probably does feel distant to him, like he's watching the events.

I always have to point out when he comes up that Charles Van Doren is St. John's College's most notorious alum, made only more so by his father's involvement with the Great Books idea and getting the New Program going in the first place.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:49 PM on July 29, 2008


An interesting read. The tone of the piece struck me as really very similar to the sort of statements issued after contemporary scandals surrounding the misrepresentation of participants on reality shows, disturbing behaviour by participants, 'phone voting fraud, &c. - victims and perpetrators alike rely on the same claim to have been hoodwinked, as if The Television System made all their choices for them, and a vaguely apologetic statement of the facts is enough to absolve them of behaving like total cocks, or opting to put themselves in a situation where total cocks could behave in their direction.

A sort-of-related question: in the UK, the US remakes of shows like Supernanny and Wife Swap are prefaced with a warning saying "Unlike [the UK version of the show], some scenes in this programme have been created for entertainment purposes" - do the programmes carry a similar warning on US telly?
posted by jack_mo at 2:54 PM on July 29, 2008


Nope. There's sometimes some sort of statement buried in the closing credits saying something like 'portions of this program not affecting the outcome have been edited' (in the case of reality shows with a prize), and sometimes something like 'the producers are involved in the decision-making process'.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:08 PM on July 29, 2008


Gee--I always thought the rule was simple: If it's on TV, it is professional wrestling. It's been crafted for dramatic impact. Even in cases where what you see is in some sense 'true', the truth has been so warped by unseen forces that it may as well have come whole cloth from a scriptwriter.

Actors and politicians especially take pride in 'putting one over.' For a politician, there is little else in the job. For an actor, there is nothing else.

And profession sports? Giggle.
posted by hexatron at 3:34 PM on July 29, 2008


Sorry. ProfessionAL sports. Giggle giggle.
posted by hexatron at 3:35 PM on July 29, 2008


Why are there no rappers named "Tic Tac Dough"?
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 3:55 PM on July 29, 2008


Interesting story, but I can't get over how he just went along with the fixing. It doesn't seem like he was desperate for money or attention, so why didn't he object?

Pride.

And yeah, it's been 50 years. Of course he sounds distant about it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:23 PM on July 29, 2008


They (Al Freedman, Jack Barry (born Jack Barasch), and Dan Enright ((born Daniel Ehrenreich)) wanted the slubby working class Jew dressed in too-tight suits, Herb Stempel, to be bested...

I agree with the gist of what you're saying, but according to van Doren, Stempel's shlubbish appearance was also the producers' idea:

...Stempel had been told what to do: how many points to choose, how to deliver his answers. He was to pat his brow (it was hot in those glass booths) but not rub it, to avoid smearing his makeup. In addition, he was instructed to get a Marines-type “whitewall” haircut, to wear an ill-fitting suit (it had belonged to his deceased father-in-law), and to describe himself as a penurious student at City College. In fact, he was a Marines veteran married to a woman of some means who once appeared on the set wearing a Persian-lamb coat and was quickly spirited away so that she wouldn’t blow his cover.

However, this account was not exactly penned by a man famous for his honesty, so who knows?

Now that I've read van Doren's own version of events, I'm amazed at how well Ralph Fiennes was able to capture his attitude based on gut instinct. His character felt shame, but not guilt, which psychologists regard as separate emotional reactions; guilt is what you feel when you've done something wrong, but shame is what you feel when other people find out about it.

(So weird that this should be posted today--my fiance and I are sorting/combining our book collections, and last week I shelved Carl and Mark van Doren's American and British Literature Since 1890. I asked my fiance aloud, "Whatever happened to Charles van Doren?" The answer is that he lives comfortably on the van Doren family estate, although he downplays the house by calling it "small" and "very old." You know, small like his vacation house in Key West, which also gets a mention. Gosh, was he ever ruined.)
posted by cirocco at 5:38 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this -- it wasn't online last week, and I was going to try and hunt down a copy to read.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:32 PM on July 29, 2008


The passivity of the article left a bad taste in my mouth.

Yeah, it makes quite a contrast with Herb Stempel's cheery forthrightness in this 1 1/2 hour interview (his game show recollections begin about 14 minutes into the first video):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Br1dtdXT9Q
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6JVzg2bxeg
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0wuajRUhxo

His memory is sharp and he doesn't fool around with self-serving omission or ambiguity.
posted by nikzhowz at 1:20 AM on July 30, 2008


Oops, I forgot you have to HTMLize links:

Stempel - Part One
Stempel - Part Two
Stempel - Part Three
posted by nikzhowz at 1:37 AM on July 30, 2008


Never quite understood why this ever became a court case. Thoughts?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:50 AM on July 30, 2008


IndigoJones, the reasoning that I got from the articles and other interviews was that they presented the entire situation as the truth to the viewers, and then they made huge profits from the "truth". IANAL, and I don't understand what actual laws were being broken, either, althought I would be very interested to hear an expert's opinion.

I always assumed that all television should be considered fiction unless it's proven to be the truth. By my way of thinking, there's entirely too much greed in the world for everyday people to not embellish their stories or outright lie in order to get a bigger paycheck, in any media or situation. But maybe I'm just a cynic and I should learn to look for more positive traits in everyone.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 9:32 AM on July 30, 2008


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