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.