Remembering Herb Stempel (1926-2020), Ethics Dunce Emeritus

 

I missed Herb Stempel’s death last month. If you aren’t 95 years old or didn’t see Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show,” that name probably doesn’t ring a bell, but Herb was a seminal figure in American popular culture ethics, and his story raises issues still unsettled today.

On the evening of December 5, 1956, Stempel, a City College student from Queens, was in his eighth week on the highly-rated NBC quiz show “Twenty-One.” He had won a total of $49,500, but the producers decided that his trivia-obsessed nerd persona (deliberately played up by the show, which instructed Stempel how to look especially dorky) was wearing thin. It was decided that his handsome, Columbia University professor challenger Charles Van Doren  should end Herb’s reign as champion, so Stempel was ordered to “take a dive.”  Despite Stempel’s protests, he was forced to whiff on the question,  “What movie won the Academy Award for best picture in 1955?,” an especially bitter pill because Stempel not only knew the answer, the winning film, “Marty,”was his favorite movie. Those who knew Stempel were shocked that he would answer, “On the Waterfront,.”

Van Doren went on to become the most celebrated  quiz-show contestant of all time—yes, even more so than Jeopardy’s Ken Jennings [Not “Jenkins” as I wrote here originally. Ken Jenkins is an actor, and he jumped into my head without being invited.] He was on the cover of Time magazine and received bags of fan mail and endorsement offers. Then Stempel, in part humiliated by the question he was forced to botch, in part out of jealousy, and maybe with a smidgen of public spiritedness, decided to become the prime witness as a federal investigation exposed the corrupt quiz show culture, telling the news media, prosecutors and congressional investigators that “Twenty One,” (and probably the other popular shows  like “The $64,000 Question,” “Tic Tac Dough’) was a fraud on the American public.

Van Doren was disgraced.  Stempel styled himself as a whistleblower and a hero. He assisted in the production of  Redford’s 1994 Oscar-nominated movie “Quiz Show,”  and also  in a 1992 documentary for the PBS series “American Experience.” After the film revived interest in the  quiz-show scandal, Stempel gave lectures and made radio and television appearances.

In other words, he cashed in. I see nothing admirable about Herb Stempel, though he is typical of many, perhaps most, whistle-blowers.

He testified that before his first appearance on “Twenty One,” the producer asked, “How would you like to win $25,000?” “Who wouldn’t?’” Stempel said he replied. Before each show, Stempel was given the questions and correct answers. He was coached to bite his lip, mop his brow, stammer, sigh, and act as if every question to which he had already been provided the answer might be the one to defeat him. He signed a false statement that he had not been coached and that he had lost to Van Doren, who was also provided answers, fairly. In exchange, Stempel was promised future paid television appearances. It was when the network reneged on those promises that Stempel blew his whistle and let the public and law enforcement know that the  quiz shows were fixed.

They didn’t recover until quite recently, with shows like “Deal or No Deal?” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” having success on prime time. Before that, the format was mostly relegated to daytime television. It’s strange, though. The appeal of shows like “Twenty One” was the same as the appeal of today’s competition reality shows, like “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race”: the illusion that audiences were watching real people dealing with a genuine challenge. The ethical line between a contestant faking that he isn’t sure of an answer to a question in order to ratchet up the suspense, and a reality show contestant following a scripted plot is vanishingly thin. Various levels of fraud exist in most of these programs.

I even believed that Paul Lynde was so clever he came up with those hilarious answers on “The Hollywood Squares” spontaneously.

10 thoughts on “Remembering Herb Stempel (1926-2020), Ethics Dunce Emeritus

  1. I remember watching this in school. What struck me was that people would actually try to scam others like this on tv. How naive I was back then.

  2. Lynde may have. Comedians in the past tended to be quick on their feet or were pretty good writers of their own material. When she was a girl, my aunt was a huge fan of his and wrote to him, inviting him to a church function in which everyone was encouraged to invite as many people as they could. Paul Lynde called the house personally to thank her for the invitation (but that he couldn’t attend).

    Whatever else may be said about him, I’ve always thought that was a great thing to do.

    The quiz show scandals definitely reverberated for years among that generation. My grandmothers would have been married mothers in their 20s during that time. I remember a conversation that took place between them when I was about 10 or 11.

    Grandma A: My favorite game show is “Family Feud”
    Grandma B: They’re all rigged, Margie.
    Grandma A: Ohhhh, I know….

    It wasn’t until I was older that I learned about the controversy in my readings on television history. I saw “Quiz Show” and even owned a copy (may still…I’ll have to check). It was because of “Quiz Show” that I had James Holzhauer’s “Jeopardy!” loss ruined for me. My husband was reading tweets about the episode while we were watching it. When he laughed at one, I told him not to read it to me in case it contained spoilers. He insisted it didn’t, then proceeded to read me a tweet that remarked about how James must have never heard of “Marty”. When I became angry, he was perplexed, then chagrined when I explained to him that James was going to lose and reminded him how “Marty” was the clue that Herbert Stempel took a dive on in “Quiz Show”. Sure enough, James lost.

    This was a great entry and an important one to remember. Neither Van Doren nor Stempel seemed the type to cheat in their ordinary lives, but the cameras, the lights, the lure of fame and money caused their ethics alarms not to ring. Unfortunately, the lights, the cameras and the fame are a double-edged sword. Their ethical lapses defined how the rest of the world saw them for the rest of their lives and I can’t imagine a sadder epitath than having my death being news solely because I cheated on a game show 54 years ago.

    As a quick addendum: The famous “Jeopardy!” contestant is Ken Jennings, not Jenkins.

    • I too would certainly like to think Paul Lynde ad libbed all those outrageously funny comments. My cynicism doesn’t go THAT far. Even for an irreligious person such as myself, there are certain irrefutable truths? Maybe this is what’s meant by faith?

  3. A propos of absolutely nothing to do with our friend, Herb Stempel, except for maybe fraud and greed, but I don’t know where to post about this to be topical.

    I have been reading a ton of stories about Rep. Ted Yoho “accosting” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez outside Congress and calling her out on her dumb ideas. Apparently, Yoho has crossed the proverbial Rubicon and must be annihilated. He is reported to have confronted Ocasio-Cortez, calling her “crazy” and “disgusting” and then called her “a fucking bitch.” She took to the floor today and issued this supposedly blistering rebuke:

    To me, Yoho was out of line. His actions were not appropriate and his statements obnoxious. How does this compare to AOC’s statements on the floor and online and in interviews? She has delivered some real whoppers. AOC’s speech has been praised for its sheer eloquence and depth. To me, though, it is short on substance (as in, none at all) and long of nonsense. I know I am supposed swoon when she invokes her papá but I am just not impressed.

    Does that make me a bad person?

    jvb

  4. I have a rigged-TV-game-show story to tell, from firsthand experience.

    I was one of three bachelors selected to answer some cute babe’s questions in an episode of “The Dating Game,” in the early 1970s. That’s all the detail I’m going to give about that, for now. Except to say that I knew even beforehand that that would probably be my one and only time EVER to audition to be shown on national TV. Any future TV appearances would be purely coincidental, or, unsolicited – such as, if I actually made it into MLB, and was playing in The Game of the Week.

    How did I know the game was rigged? Well, first, some of my friends and family, who came to see the show being taped for later broadcast weeks later, actually saw the babe talking to the bachelor she selected before any of the three shows that were produced that day started taping – out in plain sight, on the sidewalk – while the audience waited in line with their admission tickets outside the studio building. Friends and family told me that after the show was taped.

    Then, there came the babe’s questions, during the actual “game.” Again, I won’t go into great detail. But, from her very first question, she was seeking an answer or clue that referred to her appearance – as if the answering bachelor (the pre-selected winner) already knew her color of hair and dress (and of course both already knew each other’s voices, at least, having spoken to each other earlier). I did not make that particular connection of dots until sometime after the show was taped (but before it aired).

    The clincher was what I deduced from the “prize” date awarded to the winning bachelor. I learned, while just yacking in the “green room,” waiting to go out onto the stage, where all of us bachelors gathered for that taping-day and waited our turns on stage, that the winner was from Texas. (Of course, the show was taped in Hollywood, California.) The prize date was a trip to Six Flags Over Texas (theme park). The guy was introduced on the air as being a college student from one of the schools in the Six Flags vicinity. I vaguely recall that he was introduced also as a “theater major.”

    BAZINGA! So the guy had probably come to California that summer (this was late summer), to try to land a role on a show, or make commercials, or do some kind of work for one of the movie studios, or maybe even the network that ran the game show (ABC – unless my senility is showing). So he was being sent home in a nice way. The whole deal was probably worked out, for all I know, between some agent for the guy, or between some talent-scouting agency, and the network (or studio).

    For my part, I enjoyed “losing.” My consolation prize was three pairs of some of the nicest dress slacks I have ever owned. The girl was nice-looking, but I wouldn’t have drooled to date her. Besides, I already had a steady, better-looking girlfriend…

    My most vivid memory of that show? How HUGE host Jim Lange was.

    I have another story I could tell about that show-taping day (different episode, bachelor and bachelorette, taped after the show I appeared on), but will not go on.

      • Thank you – it was a lot of fun, just to write down some of my reminiscing.

        Interested in that other story? If I gave it a title, it would be: “The Rebel Bachelorette – and The Fix That Was OUT.” She might have been an Ethics Hero, even! It would probably be less wordy than the above.

        • Tell it all, man! Even if it doesn’t resonate with future young’uns catching up on ethics, us’uns who (almost) remember the days will appreciate it.

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