People who weren't watching TV at the time can have no idea how large a shadow Charles Van Doren cast over American mass culture when he made his notoriously fraudulent appearances on NBC's 21 game show in 1956-57. That was the event that first raised the issue of TV credibility, a problem that arose once again this week over dubious practices on the Fox Network's Who Wants to Marry a Multi-millionaire.
Van Doren was far more than a quiz-show contestant: He was briefly a handsome, intelligent, and even loveable TV star, admirable in a way no contestant has ever been since. In the course of his run on 21, he received $129,000 and about 500 proposals of marriage. At that time most people saw only three or four channels, so each network played to a high percentage of the public and each successful show made a larger impact than today. For weeks that winter, it was almost impossible to have a conversation in which Van Doren's name did not come up. When he fell, he fell from a great height. Quiz Show, the 1994 film directed by Robert Redford, with Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren, failed to convey the emotional power of that incident.
I was among the millions taken in when Van Doren pretended to stumble over his replies and grope for the right answers. We felt strongly when he was exposed, but why? After all, it was just a game. So I was also among the many left wondering what it meant. Like almost everyone else, I realized that no fraud ever perpetrated in print had aroused so much dismay and anger.
The guilty TV producers tried to take it lightly, and in time succeeded. Two of the men who worked the Van Doren scam spent some time at CTV in Toronto in the early 1960s, while being quietly laundered for re-entry into U.S. television. When a writer from Maclean's asked them about 21 they immediately accused him of McCarthyism. (It was the first time I ever heard that term used to cover anything outside politics, but it had the familiar effect of deflecting attention away from the original offence and onto the person mentioning it.)
Since the original quiz scandal, it's often been pointed out that almost everything on TV is staged and arranged. People interviewed on talk shows rehearse their lines, and journalists nod knowingly during cutaway shots made after the people they are interviewing have finished, so that the cuts can be intercut to make an artificially coherent narrative: This differs not at all from the editing technique of a fictional movie. We now accept all these conventions, including sitcom laugh tracks, or we forget that they exist.
But once in a while a little scandal erupts and reminds us that we are not to take what we see on TV as truth. In 1989, on ABC News, a suspected State Department spy, name given, was shown handing over a briefcase full of secrets to a Russian agent -- a wonderful piece of footage that ABC was apparently lucky to get. There was no reason at all for the audience to believe that the pictures showed anyone except the spy and the agent, till ABC was forced to admit the two men in the pictures were actors. Somehow the producers had just sort of forgotten to put the word "dramatization" on the screen. In 1992, Dateline NBC showed a GM truck blowing up, apparently because of faulty gas-tank design. As NBC later admitted, the journalists used an incendiary device to create the explosion.
These incidents made me realize that falsehood on television has more force than falsehoods in print. The two different media have different emotional effects. We can bring, if we choose, severe critical distance to the reading of a newspaper, a magazine or a book. There are newspapers and writers that some of us will never trust for a minute, and it hardly bothers us to learn that they've told another lie or made another huge error. With radio, that distance also exists, though perhaps less reliably. But television collapses the sharp judgments we exercise elsewhere. It's so intimate, and at times so involving, that it acquires a feeling of truth whether we want it to or not. TV freezes critical intelligence.
A few years ago a New York Times columnist said Van Doren's duplicity had found a place in "the pantheon of national morality tales." Why? Apparently because he violated, in a clearly defined way, the intimacy between performer and viewer.
My own experience indicates that I'm a much easier mark for a TV lie than for anything in print or even for a lie told to my face. Several times, when I've known more about the subject than the people making the program, and have known furthermore that the broadcasters are less than reliable, I've found myself nevertheless caught up in the story TV is telling, accepting and believing it -- at least while I'm watching. Only later, on reflection, does healthy skepticism switch on -- and of course that will happen with only a few of the programs we see. Perhaps there's only one rule to be applied at all times to television: Viewer, beware. If you can.