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David Neff

Stranger in a Strange Land

Greatly love the intellect

In August 1958, there was no law on the books against television fraud—except for fraudulent advertising. So when it became known that the eggheads and trivia buffs on the nation's most popular quiz shows had been spoonfed answers and questions, as well as rehearsed in their brow-mopping theatrics, law-enforcement was powerless. Eventually Congress passed a measure, known popularly as the Stempel law, outlawing fraudulent representations on television. It was named after Herbert Stempel, the long-running contestant on the game show Twenty-One, who after winning large sums of money was forced to take a dive and yield the championship to Charles Van Doren, a reluctant fraud and son of noted Columbia University literature professor Mark Van Doren.

In January of this year, NBC relaunched Twenty-One with talk-show veteran Maury Povich as its host. After watching the first episode of the revived game show, I swore that this too ought to be against the law.

As a child I watched Twenty-One, and it fed my love of knowledge. I must confess that I am a recovering knowledge junkie, someone who laments that there have been no great polymaths since Leibniz. Shortly after I learned to say mama and dada, my father taught me to say drosophila melanogaster, and when I was eight or nine he bought me the World Book Encyclopedia. Later we moved up to Britannica. In our home, we didn't just consult the encyclopedia; we read it.

When the new Twenty-One debuted, several news shows rehearsed the history of the scandals and the congressional hearings. I went to Blockbuster to rent the 1994 movie, Quiz Show, which covered the same territory, based on congressional investigator Richard Goodwin's memoir, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties.

In the movie, the chairman of the pharmaceutical company that manufactured Geritol and sponsored the original Twenty-One tells Goodwin, "The people didn't tune in to watch some egghead ...

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