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annals of communications
The New Yorker - September 14, 1994

the $64,000 question

Thirty-five years after the quiz-show scandal, a group of network executives consider the question: Is television still cheating?

by ken auletta

When Charles Van Doren was about to be exposed for his role in the nineteen-fifties quiz-show scandal, Albert Freedman, the associate producer of the show "Twenty-One," tried to comfort him by saying, "Besides, what did you do wrong? Everybody knows the magician doesn't saw the lady in half." That bit of dialogue is from the movie "Quiz Show," which was directed by Robert Redford and has just opened this week. (Terrence Rafferty's review appears on page 102.) Redford got the idea of making the movie from a chapter of Richard N. Goodwin's memoir "Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties." It was Goodwin who, in 1959, working as an investigator for a congressional committee on legislative oversight, goaded Congress into holding hearings on the quiz-show scandal.The hearings embarrassed the television networks and disgraced Van Doren, the scion of a distinguished literary family, who at the time he appeared on "Twenty-One" was a lecturer in English at Columbia University.

Redford sees his film as "a parable" of what he calls "the eternal struggle between ethics and capitalism." Although the ardor that Americans feel for their television sets has not cooled over the past forty-five years of the medium's life, Redford believes that the quiz-show scandal robbed America of its innocence, and to test his ideas he screened "Quiz Show" a few weeks ago for a potentially hostile audience of some twenty former and current network executives. The movie was shown at a private screening room on West Fifty-fourth Street, and afterward Robert Batscha, the president of the Museum of Television & Radio, moderated a discussion. Redford, wearing a tan double-breasted jacket and a blue denim shirt, his reddish-blond hair thick and untamed, arrived just moments before the discussion began.

Several of the guests said that they thought the movie took too many liberties with the known facts. Merryle (Bud) Rukeyser, who joined NBC as a junior public-relations aide in 1958 and had risen to executive vice-president of communications by the time he retired, in 1990, was the first to speak. Rukeyser said he did not believe that NBC executives like Robert Kintner, the network's president at the time of the scandal, knew of the fraud, as the movie suggests. In the movie, an executive with Geritol, the sponsor of "Twenty-One," phones Kintner to say that Geritol is getting tired of Herbert Stempel. The show's ratings had begun to falter when Stempel, a nerdy, chubby-cheeked twenty-nine-year-old graduate student from Queens, continued to win week after week and began to grate on the viewers. After the call from the Geritol executive, Kintner phones Dan Enright, the show's producer, and tells him, "Just make the guy happy. You're a producer, Dan. Produce." Enright then tells Albert Freedman,"Herbie's dead." Rukeyser didn't believe that such dialogue could be real. If Kintner and NBC had known that the quiz shows were rigged, they would never have sent just a single junior aide to Washington to monitor the 1959 congressional hearings, according to Rukeyser, who was in fact the aide sent to Washington. It was a more innocent time, he said.

Fred Friendly, the former president of CBS News and a longtime producer for Edward R. Murrow, rose from a front-row seat and declared that it didn't really matter whether the fifties were a more innocent time, because the issues raised by the movie have endured. "This movie is all about ethics," he said. Friendly suggested that in pursuit of ratings and profits the networks cared too little about quality and about their public obligation to inform. He recalled sitting in a CBS control room with Murrow and watching the first broadcast of "The $64,000 Question," on CBS. It was a Tuesday at 10 P.M., and Murrow's "See It Now" followed at ten-thirty. "In the middle of the quiz show," Friendly said, "Murrow turned to me and said, 'Fritzo'--he always called me Fritzo--'how long do you think we'll stay in this time period?' Ed knew then we would lose our time period, from ten-thirty to eleven o'clock on Tuesday night, because this time period would be so expensive and so good for CBS that the best that Murrow could do was not good enough, because the money would be there"--for the quiz show. "And that's the problem today."

A virtue of Redford's movie is that it examines both the black-and-white aspects of ethics and the murky gray areas. And so in the movie Redford mischievously shows the investigator, Goodwin, coaching Herbert Stempel on the answers he should give when he testifies before Congress. "You answer yes," Goodwin tells Stempel at one point.

"You're worse than Enright," Stempel replies.

Whenever the movie focusses on Van Doren and Goodwin and Stempel, it treats them as nuanced human beings. But other characters in the film--network officials, producers, advertisers, public officials--are sketched less fully. This bothered many guests at the screening. Irwin Segelstein, who worked for an ad agency in the fifties before joining CBS and later becoming vice-chairman of NBC, said that the movie conveyed "a loaded depiction" of network schemers. "I don't think the people involved had the sense that they were doing something terrible," he said. The lapses kind of sneaked up on them, and "by degrees" they got "sucked into it," he went on. "In your opening scenes, they're already heavies, and they're heavies all the way to the end." To say that the quiz-show scandal represented an absence of ethics "is a little heavy," he added. "I mean, these are guys who hugged their children and kissed their wives and did good things."

Jerome Feniger, the managing director of the Station Representatives Association, didn't care whether or not the TV executives hugged their kids. "It is totally obvious to me, and I was there at the time, that everyone involved--the advertiser, the agency, and the producers--knew about it," he said. "So did the networks," he added.

A certain amount of cheating takes place in all entertainment, several speakers at the screening noted. They mentioned makeup, lighting, laugh tracks, wardrobes. Even Groucho Marx was fed jokes, Segelstein said.

The executives drifted into a discussion of how entertainment "dissembled," as opposed to "lied," and of all the difficult circumstances that network executives face. Delano E. Lewis, the fifty-five-year-old president of National Public Radio, who is one of the few African-American major communications executives, then declared, "This business that this is just entertainment, and we just slipped into this, just really misses the fact that the public believed this. Viewers make a mistake by thinking of the quiz-show scandal from the vantage point of network or advertising executives. It is a movie about ethics. Standards are absolutely needed, because people believe what they see and hear. And so, from the public's perspective, they don't understand what's going on. . . . They were really believing that people were answering questions and winning money."

Batscha, the moderator, asked if a similar scandal could happen today.

Stephen Weiswasser, the senior vice-president and general counsel of Capital Cities /ABC, who was perhaps fifteen years younger than most of the other guests at the screening, replied that the issues today "are a great deal more subtle, but they're the same issues, the same problems." He went on, "We would not have a quiz-show scandal or anything that looks like it. But we fight the same battles." The quiz-show scandal of the fifties, he said, happened "by degrees," not by edict.

"It was the environment that allowed that to happen," said Lawrence Grossman, a former president of NBC News, who was working in the advertising business and then at CBS during the fifties. The quest for ratings still prevails in television, he said. In fact, the situation may be worse today than it was nearly four decades ago, since the networks now face more strenuous competition and are even more desperate to find an audience.

Segelstein asked, "Do you really think these people come out unrehearsed on 'Oprah,' on 'Donahue'?" He noted that "What's My Line?" was organized and partly rehearsed before it was broadcast, and observed that Oprah Winfrey has her guests screened before they go on the show. "And, step by step, degree by degree, you wind up with a '$64,000 Question,' " he said.

CHEATING is certainly not restricted to television. Weiswasser said that Redford himself seemed to be cheating, since he could not have known of the conversations that his movie shows between Charles and his father, the poet Mark Van Doren, or between the younger Van Doren and Robert Kintner, or between Kintner and Enright, the producer. Nor is there more than circumstantial evidence that, as the film suggests, Judge Mitchell Schweitzer, of Manhattan, conspired with Enright to suppress the findings of a grand jury that investigated the quiz shows after Herbert Stempel, enraged at being replaced by Van Doren, reported the fraud to Frank Hogan, the Manhattan District Attorney. Nor is there any proof that Judge Schweitzer telephoned Enright (as the movie shows him doing) to alert him. Yet real people are portrayed, and words and actions are attributed to them--a now common practice of docudramas, from ABC's "The Final Days" and HBO's "Barbarians at the Gate" to Oliver Stone's "JFK."

"There's nothing wrong with docudrama, I think, so long as newspeople don't do it," said Reuven Frank, a former NBC News president and a producer of the Huntley-Brinkley news show. " 'Julius Caesar' is a docudrama." The networks had always been in the "business of assembling audiences," Frank said, and there was nothing inherently corrupt about that. News and commerce have always been at odds, and compromises have always been made, he went on, but these compromises are "something quite different from knowingly lying to millions of people week after week."

Redford himself complained to me of docudramas and tabloid journalism, "The danger with all of this is that the truth gets futzed around so much that people will accept fiction as fact." Yet in "Quiz Show" he feels free to fictionalize real people in the name of art.

Weiswasser asked Redford, "How much of the movie that you put on the screen reflects true reality and fact? How much of it is for dramatic effect?"

Redford conceded that "license was taken" in the making of the movie--"dramatic license, to make either a moral point or an ethical point and not move too far out of what could possibly have happened." He acknowledged later that he had telescoped three years of quiz-show scandals into one year, and that "there's editorializing there between what took place on 'The $64,000 Question' and what took place on 'Twenty-One.' " For dramatic impact, Goodwin performs a more important role in the movie than he actually did in cracking the case. Redford did not apologize for taking liberties, because, he said, he had tried "to elevate something so that people can see it." He went on, "Otherwise, you might as well have a documentary. And there has been a documentary on this subject, and I think quite a good one." He was referring to Julian Krainin's "The Quiz Show Scandal," produced for public television in 1992. (Krainin is listed as a producer of Redford's movie.) In fairness, Redford's movie does stick to the essential truth of what happened.

While Redford grapples with ethical dilemmas in an often thoughtful fashion, he does sometimes succumb to Oliver Stonism--the notion that evil acts are the result of a conspiracy, plotted and executed with precision by brilliant but corrupt men. The weakness of this notion is that it assumes more intelligence than most of us possess. It assumes that most scandals stem from cool cunning, not egotism, stupidity, or whim. The truth is that people--including business executives and politicians--are usually ruled by more than a single emotion or ambition. In the quiz-show scandal, Van Doren was a liar, a self-confessed perjurer. But Redford allows us to see him as more than that. And Kintner and the producers and the advertising executives were more than just hungry for ratings, though they were rapacious. A fuller portrait of Kintner, for example, would have shown that, while he was by most accounts a tyrant, he did care more about the News Division than about the Entertainment Division. Kintner was, in fact, the architect of NBC News and the nightly Huntley-Brinkley newscast. Frank Stanton, the president of CBS at the time, who took the quiz shows off the air when the fraud first surfaced, was, and is, a man of enormous personal rectitude.

The more complex truth may be that Kintner and the others were less sinister than "Quiz Show" suggests--that they were just panicky executives, determined to win the ratings contest at all costs, because their jobs hinged on the outcome. Certainly Kintner and NBC did little to investigate early allegations of fraud. Although NBC announced in the fall of 1958 that its own "investigation had proved Stempel's charges to be utterly baseless and untrue," to arrive at this conclusion NBC had merely relied on assurances from the producers of "Twenty-One" that there was no fraud.

DOES television still cheat? Does it camouflage or manipulate the truth for the sake of ratings and profits? While there are no more rigged quiz shows, all three networks have cut corners by using sensationalized--and even faked--car crashes for dramatic impact. And, of course, questionable car crashes are not far removed from another form of cheating: blurring the line between what is real and what is not through the dramatic reenactment by a news broadcast of a scene in which actors are substituted for real people and dialogue is invented. This practice is much more common on syndicated tabloid news shows than at the networks. For example, in February, Fox's "A Current Affair"--the father of the tabloid news shows--used actors to simulate unproved claims of child molestation which a thirteen-year-old boy had lodged against the singer Michael Jackson. But blurring the lines of truth does sometimes occur on the networks, too, even if they are less blatant about it. Earlier this year, ABC's "Turning Point" used a "point of view" camera to reenact the Charles Manson clan's approach to the site of their murder rampage, and last year the network's "20/20" used the same technique to portray Lorena Bobbitt's frantic flight from her home after she amputated her husband's penis.

Tabloid TV lowers standards in other ways. There are firms that make it their business to track true-life crime and horror tales and tip off news organizations for a fee. The blonder or the prettier or the more articulate the survivors of the crimes or the horrors are, the more intense is the bidding war to capture their story. The practice of paying for interviews invites cheating, since people have an incentive to embellish their tales in order to reap the rewards. Those who confess to Geraldo Rivera that they slept with their mother, or tell Oprah Winfrey why they swapped spouses, or confide to "Hard Copy" why they found murder thrilling, are often coaxed in much the same way that Charles Van Doren was when Freedman, the associate producer, told him that he was elevating the image of intellectuals. A recent cover story, "Tabloid TV's Blood Lust," in U.S. News & World Report noted, "The 'public service' argument is often invoked by television producers, who sometimes persuade people to 'go public' by telling them that to do so will help others in similar circumstances." Guests are often encouraged to punch up their responses, to be brief, to stress certain points; people are urged to get in touch with the show if, say, they have been raped by a parent. "They try to make the shows more interesting," Irwin Segelstein said. "Is that the same as coaching? I don't know. But it's not what meets the eye. It's easy to slip into these things because you're in show business."

TELEVISION has always danced with the show-business devil. The need for pictures can distort judgments about what is news and what is not, what is best for the viewer and what is not. And the success of a show like "Victory at Sea" owed much to sometimes soaring, sometimes sombre background music. Before People and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," Edward R. Murrow was the host of the weekly "Person to Person," asking his celebrity guests, "What was the biggest thrill of your career?" The search for likable personalities and attractive faces yielded first Charles Van Doren on "Twenty-One" and then, years later, Phyllis George as co-host of the "CBS Morning News." The most successful television show in history--"60 Minutes"--owes much to tenacious reporting and good writing and much to entertainment values as well. "In a way, '60 Minutes' is a Western," the late esteemed CBS producer Burton Benjamin declared in 1987. "It began with two guys in the white hats--Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner--pursuing the black hats and prevailing. The black hats were thieves, rip-off artists, dishonest politicians, corporations involved in hanky-panky, labor unions that were doing some unpleasant things, and so forth. '60 Minutes' rarely, if ever, dealt with matters like arms control or the budget deficit. It dealt with 'stories' and good guys and bad guys most of the time."

Television's greatest distortions may occur on the talk shows. "It's unfortunate, in a way, what the talk shows and the talk-show culture . . . have done to the business of writing," the writer Wendy Kaminer said on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's excellent documentary "Talk Television" earlier this year. "You can't write a serious book anymore. Anybody who writes a nonfiction book that has any kind of social criticism or political commentary has to be prepared to go on talk shows, and you have to be able to reduce the book to a series of twenty- or thirty-second sound bites." The need to compress answers for reasons of time and drama, coupled with news-discussion shows like "The McLaughlin Group" and "Crossfire" and "Capital Gang," raises the decibel level of American politics. The common and false presumption of these shows is that most public-policy questions fall into a liberal or a conservative box--into yes-or-no answers.

Distortion inevitably creeps into news. Presidential candidates are reduced to an average sound bite of about eight seconds on the evening news. Serious producers and correspondents, sometimes without realizing it, encourage those they interview to rush--to give them a sharp sound bite. "Ratings are the scorecard," David Bartlett, the president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, told an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Forum last January. Commenting on the outburst of tabloidlike "magazine" shows, the current NBC News president, Andrew Lack, told the same forum, "We got too good at producing the hooks, and unfortunately the audience took the bait."

Thirty-five years after the quiz-show scandal, the proliferation of channel choices has produced another form of cheating, brought on by the need to keep costs down. Since the mid-nineteen-eighties, the three networks have reduced the number and size of their overseas news bureaus, and have relied increasingly on news services to supply them with pictures. Despite the fact that the networks identify such borrowed footage, viewers may assume that the network had a reporter on the scene when in fact it did not. A confection of news-service pictures and a voice-over from a network correspondent who sits in Washington substitutes for on-site reporting. The network has "covered" the story but not reported it. "I was asked to do Somalia for the weekend news and I've never been to Somalia," the CBS correspondent Martha Teichner told the Columbia Journalism Review in 1992. She did do some research on Somalia, Teichner said, and she added, "Even if I'm correct and accurate, I'm superficial."

In many ways, the cost accountants are also responsible for the glut of network magazine news shows, with their racy fare. Since these hour-long broadcasts are cheaper to produce than an entertainment program, and since the networks own them and can sell or rebroadcast them, the network owners use "news as a quick fix for their other problems and in the bargain produce little more than a carrousel of look-alike magazines and look-alike talk shows that follow each other like circus elephants." So warned Don Hewitt, the "60 Minutes" founder and executive producer, in an address he delivered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August of 1993. Hewitt spoke about the surfeit of network magazine shows, and outlined a boundary between legitimate dramatization and cheating: "There is . . . a line that separates show biz from news biz. The trick is to walk up to it, touch it with your toe, but don't cross it."

The needs of commerce affect standards in other ways. Local newscasts do promotional stories about the networks' latest made-for-TV movies--"the big shill factor," the Newsday TV writer Verne Gay has called it. Sneaker manufacturers pay all the members of a basketball team for wearing their footwear. A weekly syndicated show, "Main Floor," took viewers into department stores and charged advertisers roughly twenty-five thousand dollars for a two-to-three-minute segment in the program--without telling viewers that they were watching a commercial. Viewers are meant to think that the half-hour "infomercials" they watch are not produced by a sponsor. To convey a sense that viewers were watching a news-cast, the Collagen Corporation hired Kathleen Sullivan, a former newscaster, to hawk its skin-care product by promising an "exclusive, in-depth analysis" of how to treat damaged skin.

Relaxed federal TV regulations now permit the networks to own and sell more of their own programs. Thus the networks have a financial incentive for putting on their own shows (as opposed to those made by independent production companies) and reserving for their own shows the plum spots on the evening schedule, as ABC did last season, when it broadcast Ed Asner's "Thunder Alley" immediately after "Home Improvement," television's reigning ratings champ. A similar inspiration has struck four of the largest record companies: the Warner Music Group, Sony Music, EMI Music, and PolyGram have joined forces to create a music-video cable channel to compete with MTV. To try to lessen the risk of capitalism and guarantee the distribution of their product, Hollywood studios are seeking to merge with CBS, NBC, and ABC. These moves arouse the same antitrust worry: Will the distributor give a fair shot to competitors? Or will the distributor cheat the customer, as supermarkets sometimes do, by refusing to display the products of certain competitors? The much ballyhooed convergence of once distinct industries--telephone and cable and broadcast and movie and publishing and computer software and hardware companies--will accelerate this trend, as partners scramble to scratch one another's backs.

The ethical dimensions of these nineteen-nineties issues are more subtle than the ones of the nineteen-fifties, but they are no less vital. Today's "scandals" may be different from the scandal that occurred when Charles Van Doren was slipped the answers on a quiz show. There are two notable differences between then and now: Today's lapses don't result in felony charges, as Van Doren's did when he lied to a grand jury (after deceiving viewers). And the nature of the ardor that Americans feel for television has changed, because the outrage that the quiz-show scandal provoked does seem to be a relic of a more innocent time. In the nearly four decades since that scandal, television has succeeded, by degrees, in numbing our sense of outrage. We remain married to the TV set, but we seem to expect, and tolerate, cheating. (c)


© 1996-2002, Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
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