After 50 years of silence, quiz-show scandal figure Charles Van Doren speaks!

Vandoren_lI’m only just now catching up to the New Yorker‘s fascinating first-person account of the 1950s quiz show scandal from its central figure, Charles Van Doren (pictured), who broke his media silence about the event for the first time in 50 years by publishing this article last week. As those who remember the scandal (or the account of it in Robert Redford’s 1994 movie Quiz Show) may recall, Van Doren was an instructor at Columbia University who captivated the nation with his 1956 victory over Herb Stempel in NBC’s primetime trivia contest Twenty-One, then parlayed his fame into a gig as a cultural correspondent at the network’s Today show. Turned out that the whole competition was as scripted as wrestling, and that both Van Doren and Stempel were in on the fix. Congressional hearings were held, Van Doren lost his Ivy League teaching position and his Today job, and he spent the next half a century in unobtrusive corners of book publishing and academia.

In the New Yorker item, Van Doren goes into detail about how he was recruited to appear on Twenty-One, how the deception unraveled, how he lied to interrogators before ultimately coming clean, how temptation returned in the form of an offer to be a paid consultant on Redford’s movie, how he felt about the finished film and Ralph Fiennes’ performance as him, and how he learned over the years the differences between fame, celebrity, and notoriety. Two mysteries remain: why he agreed to the scam in the first place (he hints that money and fame were factors, but doesn’t actually specify what made him so quick to compromise his integrity) and why he’s suddenly willing to talk about it now. Still, Van Doren’s account makes for a fascinating tale, especially given how much fakery there still is on television — now, the questions are about how much reality TV is actually staged by its producers — except maybe for how little we’re shocked whenever we learn TV has duped us.

addCredit(“Charles Van Doren: Everett Collection”)

Comments (11 total) Add your comment
  • Nancy

    Susman, just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your posts here at Popwatch. I rarely comment on your stuff, but I always read it. Keep up the great work. Thanks!

  • LisaMama

    Thanks for the link — just finished reading it. Fascinating stuff!

  • janet mikesell

    great job

  • Dave

    I thought Van Doren was dead. Thanks for the link! Why he’s telling the story now, you ask? Looks like he’s got himself a book going there (that’ll make him way more than the TV show did.)
    As to how much of what we see on “reality” TV is fake—anything that’s prerecorded and edited cannot be trusted completely…ever. Be it idiotic fare like stuff on VH1 or stuff that seems more genuine like “Deadliest Catch.” My advice: Be Skeptical!

  • cranky

    ‘Quiz Show’ is one of my all time favorite movies. Thanks for posting this link!

  • Ronda

    I did a paper on Van Doren for my “History of Television” paper in college and it was a fascinating subject. I’ve always wondered why he hid out for so long. Lots of other people implicated in the scandal (Patty Duke, Jack Barry and Dan Enright) went on to succesful careers. Great article!

  • thwarted

    wow. thanks for linking to this.

  • Gretchen

    I was forced to watch “Quiz Show” in a journalism class in college and since then I have been fascinated by it. How cool would it be to go to UCONN and have him as your prof?! I wonder if the kids in his class have any idea who he is and the impact he had on tv game shows as we know them now.
    One thing I found interesting was that the movie made it seem like the Congressional investigation was happening simultaneously with Charles’ run on ‘Twenty-One’. But in fact, the investigation came much later. That stuck out to me.

  • taylor adduci

    van doran to me is a liar and a cheater. personally i do not agree with him at all, if i could meet him i would have so much to say, so many questions torwards why he chose to CHEAT

  • .

    I’m extremely inspired along with your writing talents and also with the structure in your weblog. Is this a paid topic or did you customize it your self? Anyway keep up the excellent high quality writing, it’s uncommon to peer a nice blog like this one these days..

  • william j smith

    compassionate man.my freshman english instructor 1955@columbia he made appr $4400/yr.i made over $4800/yr as a technician that same year.poor pay for an intellectual

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