We live in an age where we incessantly argue over the accuracy of public and private comments and cast doubts on the integrity of those who make them.
This behavior has become much more than just a way to determine what’s credible and what isn’t. Sadly, it’s turned into a form of entertainment and self-satisfaction. Loudly denouncing someone else for something they said offers a feeling of righteous indignation, which we seem to crave each time we check our social media accounts.
It’s ironic, then, that an icon of untruth from a previous era died largely in obscurity earlier this year. He made front page headlines for deceiving television audiences six decades ago. Today, his name likely wouldn’t register much interest in the public square.
Charles Van Doren became the central figure of the quiz show scandal of the late 1950s. He won about $128,000 on the NBC program “Twenty-One,” which would equal more than $1 million in today’s money.
But in 1959, Van Doren admitted the whole thing was a hoax — he had been given the answers by the show’s producers. This altered the course of his life. Avoiding the public spotlight from then on, he died April 9 at the age of 93.
It’s unfair that Van Doren came to symbolize this controversy alone. Many other people also were fed the answers on quiz shows, urged to do so by network big shots eager to manipulate the drama on these programs. This fed the public’s interest, which increased ratings and kept corporate revenue coming in.
So Van Doren certainly wasn’t the only perpetrator in this case of fraud. But few other people lived beneath a cloud of contempt as a result like he did.
But circumstances practically dictated that he’d turn into the fall guy. He was a good-looking academic from a prominent literary family. His charisma made him a natural as a guest on other NBC programs.
Out of all the contestants on these quiz shows, Van Doren was destined to become a celebrity. This was both the temptation to lie that he couldn’t resist and the reason the public glare fixated on him once he was exposed.
“In the heyday of quiz shows in the 1950s, when scholarly housewives and walking encyclopedia nerds battled on ‘The $64,000 Question’ and ‘Tic-Tac-Dough,’ Mr. Van Doren was a rare specimen: a handsome, personable young intellectual with solid academic credentials, a faculty post at a prestigious university and an impressive family pedigree,” according to a story published April 10 by the New York Times. “His father was Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary critic and professor of English at Columbia [University]. His mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was a novelist and editor. And his uncle Carl Van Doren had been a professor of literature, a historian and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. Charles himself had bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a $4,400-a-year position at Columbia and an honest look about him.”
Van Doren appeared on “Twenty-One” for 14 weeks, from Nov. 28, 1956, to March 11, 1957. The New York Times reported that he also “appeared on the cover of Time magazine, received some 20,000 fan letters, brushed off dozens of marriage proposals and signed a $150,000 contract to appear on NBC shows for three years.”
He lied to a grand jury in Manhattan about his participation in the rigged process. But on Nov. 2, 1959, he confessed his role before a congressional committee.
“He lost his job at Columbia; NBC canceled his contract; and, along with others who had lied to the grand jury about their quiz show roles, he pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury, a misdemeanor, and received a suspended sentence,” the New York Times reported. “Many contestants shared the guilt, but the publicity spotlighted Mr. Van Doren because of his family’s prominence.”
Van Doren kept a very low profile for the remainder of his life. He worked for years in Chicago at Encyclopedia Britannica; he also wrote and edited books.
Dishonesty is second nature for many people; it frequently gets them what they want. And despite our public declarations to the contrary, we largely accept their numerous lies.
We’ve become very selective about whose falsehoods we reject. If a public figure we support offers a whopper, we make excuses for it. But if someone we oppose bends reality even a little, we heap mounds of condemnation upon them.
To be fair, it’s not that I don’t believe anyone is genuinely concerned about this issue. I know some people who are, and they will stand against falsehoods no matter who utters them.
However, many of us adopt a mindset of situational ethics. If the circumstances benefit someone we like or a cause we support, fraud isn’t all that bad.
Conversely, we go out of our way to demonize individuals we loathe. Their deceit cannot be excoriated strongly enough. It’s not sufficient to object to their fabrications; we must destroy them personally — forgetting in the process that we’re also capable of deviating from the facts or falling for something that’s not entirely accurate.
Van Doren seems to have taken his misdeed to heart and learned a valuable lesson: Hubris is a sure path to ruin. Shielded by the privacy he guarded following the quiz show scandal, he eluded public consciousness at a time when he could have taught us something vital about the responsibility all of us have to pursuing the truth — no matter where it leads and who it convicts.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.