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.

Holiday Ethics Assigment: Quick! Watch These 25 Great Old Ethics Movies Again Before You Go Bonkers Too!


I am compiling a new list of great ethics movies to help those troubled by the recently completed Presidential campaign, the election and its aftermath. I haven’t decided whether to reveal it piecemeal, or collectively as I have before, but I do need to begin by presenting the previous list of 25, actually the combination of several previous posts. Ethics films I have covered individually since those lists debuted, like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies, will eventually be added.

For now, here’s the top 25. Don’t pay attention to the order.

1Spartacus (196o)

The raw history is inspiring enough: an escaped gladiator led an army of slaves to multiple victories over the Roman legions in one of the greatest underdog triumphs ever recorded. Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal classic has many inspiring sequences, none more so than the moment when Spartacus’s defeated army chooses death rather than to allow him to identify himself to their Roman captors (“I am Spartacus!”)

Ethical issues highlighted: Liberty, slavery, sacrifice, trust, politics, courage, determination, the duty to resist abusive power, revolution, love, loyalty.

Favorite quote: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” [Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)]

2.  Hoosiers (1986)

“Hoosiers” is loosely based on true story, but its strength is the way it combines classic sports movie clichés—the win-at-all-costs coach down on his luck, the remote superstar, over-achieving team—into a powerful lesson: it isn’t the final victory that matters most, but the journey to achieving it.

Ethical issues highlighted: Forgiveness, generosity, leadership, kindness, courage, loyalty, diligence, redemption.

Favorite quote: “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.” [ Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)]

3. Babe (1995)

A wonderful movie about the virtues of being nice, the greatest civility film of all time. Second place: “Harvey.”

Ethical issues highlighted: Civility, kindness, reciprocity, loyalty, courage, love, friendship, bigotry, bias.

Favorite quote: “Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise…The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise”  The Narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) Continue reading

Ten More Hollywood Ethics Cures For A Post-Election Hangover (Part 2)

Here are the final five ethics movies, making 25 on the Ethics Alarms list so far. Except for the last, they are a sober batch. I think I now understand why they are at the back end of my list of 25; this group is darker than the first 15 and more tinged with defeat than hope. Their ethics lessons, however, remain inspiring, or if not quite that, thought-provoking:

6. The Insider (1999)

Another true story, one that explores the murky area of whistleblowing and whistleblowers as well as the conflict between the business of journalism and the profession of journalism.

Ethical issues highlighted: confidentiality, whistleblowing, law vs. ethics, sacrifice, courage, media ethics, integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, betrayal

Favorite quote: “You’re in a state of conflict. Here’s how it lays out. If you have vital insider stuff that the American people for their welfare need to know and you feel compelled to disclose it and this violates the agreement – that’s one thing. On the other hand, if you want to honor the agreement, it’s simple. Say nothing. Do nothing. The only guy who can figure this out is you, and that’s you all by yourself.” Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) Continue reading