I’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.