Heroes Or Villains?

How do we know which is which?

This isn't directly about Manti T'eo or Lance Armstrong. We've all heard enough about them.

But it is about "feel good" stories which, as they develop, don't always have happy endings.

In a way, both show the media often has more of a heart then it is given credit for. That, especially with T'eo, doesn't excuse the reality that the story should have been checked into more than it was. (Armstrong, over the years, was asked repeatedly whether he used illegal drugs, and the answer always was "no"-until Oprah.)

But this isn't anything new. Ironically, it goes back to one of the biggest scandals to hit the television industry, all the way back in the "innocent" 1950's.

Charles Van Doren was, at least at first, his generation's version of Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings. He knocked off opponent after opponent in winning a then-astounding $100,000-plus on the quiz show Twenty-One. That, plus his youth and good looks, made him a celebrity, putting him on the cover of Time magazine and other publications which didn't normally pay a lot of attention (then) to the entertainment industry. NBC, which aired Twenty One, wanted to keep him on the air as long as possible. So after his run on the show was over, it signed him to be a contributor to the network's Today show. Of course, everybody then assumed he really knew the awnsers to all the questions he was being asked.  Why was there a reason to think otherwise?

What happened next played out in 1958 and 1959. If you've heard the story before, or saw the 1994 movie Quiz Show, you know what it was. It came out that Van Doren, among other quiz show contestants, either were given the awnsers to the questions they were asked before they ever stepped in front of the cameras, or somehow the show was manipulated so they would win. Few, including Van Doren, ever went to jail, but they were put under the now-unfriendly light of TV news cameras and congressional hearings.  The latter ended with laws making it illegal to fix a quiz show (for those who never thought it was morally wrong).

(interestingly, the show which made Jennings the modern-day Van Doren almost didn't go on the air. It's because Jeopardy's format-giving the contestants the awnsers so they can provide the questions-was at first met with skepticism by creator Merv Griffin when his wife suggested the idea. He responded, "that was tried before and people got into trouble".)

The common thread to this more-than-50 year old story and today's headlines is that Van Doren was initally a feel-good story. We truly wanted to believe he was the real deal. When it turned out he was an ordinary, flawed person (albeit one that was created by people with their own intentions), we felt betrayed. Even our skepticism toward the media, at first, didn't prevent us from thinking Armstrong (a cancer survivor, despite the scandal) and T'eo (who really did lose his grandmother on the same day as his alleged girlfriend supposedly died) were heroes. 

We also forgot who heroes really are (think 9/11). It takes us things like this to remind us.




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