1. Opinion

Column: What a quiz show scandal can still teach us about America

For those born after 1960, the name Charles Van Doren will mean little or nothing. Yet his death recently at the age of 93 recall a distant period when American leaders expressed concern about the moral health of their economic and political system as well as their social and cultural well-being.

Despite having been lifted out of the Great Depression by World War II and amid the general prosperity that followed, many influential Americans worried that something was wrong with their society. In fact, politicians spent a great deal of time looking for an assortment of enemies they believed had infiltrated had infiltrated their triumphant nation and corrupted their way of life. In short, they believed that powerful forces had rigged democracy and capitalism.

Van Doren became a symbol of the "rigged society." The son and nephew of Mark and Carl Van Doren, two Pulitzer Prize winners, Charles represented the New York City intellectual elite responsible for shaping cultural tastes. Yet in 1958 at the age of 32, he agreed to appear on a popular television quiz show, Twenty-One. Blending a sharp intellect with a common touch that so impressed viewers of the relatively new medium of television, he made such a splash that magazines featured his face on their covers, the Today show hired him as commentator, and his popularity with adults rivalled that of a young performer beloved by teenagers, named Elvis Presley.

The magic did not last. It turned out that Van Doren and his TV handlers had cheated. This quiz show, like many others, was rigged and carefully rehearsed. Van Doren lost his job at Today as well as a teaching position at Columbia University and disappeared from the limelight.

Although he dropped from sight, the idea of something rotten about American values persisted. Even before the quiz show scandal erupted, American politicians had wielded congressional hearings to investigate "enemies from within," which they believed were undermining traditional values of integrity and fair play. Whether the targets were communists, mob bosses, trade union officials or comic book publishers, lawmakers believed sinister individuals and were operating clandestinely to undermine values. Following the quiz show uproar revelations emerged that radio disk jockeys received payola (bribes) to lure teenagers into listening to rock 'n' roll music, which offended the adult arbiters of good taste.

The notion of the "rigged society" was widespread in the 1950s. President Dwight Eisenhower's administration found evidence "of widespread corruption and lack of the personal integrity which is so essential to the fabric of American life." A year after Van Doren's fall, the distinguished writer John Steinbeck concluded, "On all levels (society) is rigged," and lamented that a "creeping all-pervading nerve gas of immorality … starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices, both corporate and governmental." The best-selling social critic Vance Packard found the hands of "hidden persuaders" manipulating Americans through advertising and rock music.

In an era of relative peace and prosperity, many citizens of Van Doren's America believed that despite outward domestic tranquility, the country was under threat by hidden elements that rigged the rules of their political, economic, and pop culture worlds. In fact, the pre-World War II world they remembered was rapidly changing and they wanted easy answers to explain the transformation. Whether it was the assault on racial segregation, the Baby Boom and growth of teenage culture, or the migration from rural and small town America to big cities, or the spread of popular entertainment through the technology of television, many Americans had difficulty understanding what had befallen them. It was easier to seek out culprits behind a "rigged society" than to view from a the broader perspective changes in economic and racial relationships as well as the impact of new technologies at home and the workplace.

Sixty years later, we are again confronted with loud voices proclaiming that society is rigged. Much more vocal than President Eisenhower, President Donald Trump has led a crusade against what he considers the "Rigged Society," as he labels news fake and the press as "the enemy of the people," finds foes embedded in the so-called deep state of permanent government, and calls anyone who opposes him "traitors."

Even on the political left, presidential hopefuls such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders contend that the economy and the Trump administration are rigged against the majority of the people, though their list of enemies differs dramatically from that of the president's. Once again, in the post-9/11 world we are living in a time of insecurity and rapid changes that we do not fully understand. It is easier once again for many Americans who have seen their economic and political lives upended by advances in technology and workforce to look for simple solutions and follow leaders who proclaim that they will unrig society and make America great again.

Van Doren's death reminds us of a similar time when politicians offered easy answers to complex problems. Looking for "hidden persuaders" and "enemies of the people" will not solve our problems any more than they did for those living through the 1950s. It is one thing to realize that today's "reality television" is no less staged than 1950s quiz shows. However, it is far more dangerous to constitutional democracy to accuse political enemies as traitors and brand mainstream media as "fake news."

Steven Lawson is professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and co-author of Exploring American Histories: A Survey with Sources.