Thirty-four million U.S. households had televisions in 1956, and that December an estimated 50 million Americans watched the climactic, rigged episode of Twenty-One—pitting a Jewish ex-G.I. from Queens against a Brahmin second-generation Columbia faculty member in side-by-side Eichmann-style isolation chambers, a staging that looks now like the first great televised show trial of American meritocracy.
We returned the wrong verdict first. Herb Stempel had been the show’s pick for champion and among the first to be fed answers from producers—one of whom went on to found Penthouse Forum. But the audience got bored with Stempel. They wanted someone more polished, more imperial—someone who made mastery of trivia look like a form of genteel grace rather than something that rubbed off on your hands from cheap newsprint. The contest picked up a lot of power, generations later, as a forced parable of lost innocence (thank you, Robert Redford), but it’s American cynicism in the imperial style when a studio-system hack crowns a cipher like Charles van Doren a national hero. And the country eats it up.
Then came the wronger verdict—cheering on a witch-hunt prosecution meant to straighten out prime time. Really, they were prosecuting producers for how they were programming: The Manhattan district attorney’s office took up the sanctimonious crusade of exposing the game shows, Kenneth Starr style. (Twenty-four were on the air at the time, the peak of Sputnik fever.) A House of Representatives subcommittee launched its own investigation and compelled Van Doren to testify and finally confess—the golden boy had lied to the grand jury but couldn’t bear to do it in the halls of Congress. When he returned home from Washington that night, a reporter met Van Doren at the door with news from his two employers: NBC had fired him, and Columbia had accepted his resignation.