`Quiz Show Rigged Again

I DON'T do movie reviews, but ``Quiz Show'' is no ordinary movie and this is no ordinary review. ``Quiz Show'' has special meaning to anyone who has worked in television. It is a sort of morality play about grand-scale deception for fun and profit: fun for the audience; profit for the sponsors, networks and those willing co-conspirators, the coached participants.

During the rise of the quiz shows in the 1950s, I had just started working for CBS - in the high-minded news department, far from these scandalous goings on. But how far? Illusion is the essence of television entertainment; and news is not entirely immune to illusion. Television news is also a matter of makeup, lighting, and camera angles, and the director who tells you where to look may say, ``Cheat left'' or ``Cheat right.'' An anchor interview with a correspondent on the scene is usually rehearsed. I have done my share of ex post facto reaction shots - smiles, sympathetic looks, or deadpan - to be edited into an interview as needed. Edward R. Murrow did the rehearsed ``Person to Person'' interviews unenthusiastically, and I played a 1914 Berlin correspondent for a Walter Cronkite ``You Are There'' reenactment of a historic event. Indeed, the first advice I got from a producer on how to succeed in television was, ``Sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made.''

Television makes inexorable demands to tamper with reality, on a relatively minor scale on the news side, on a grander scale on the entertainment side. But the rationale is the same - it must be captivating and exciting, and if the public is deceived, it is only to make the public happy.

But now let us come back to ``Quiz Show,'' in which Robert Redford purports to lay bare the immorality of rigging programs to deceive the public. Mr. Redford rhetorically asks, in an interview with the New York Times, whether the concept of ethics will disappear from the English language, as shame has done. But Redford has also rigged his picture. He has turned Herbert Stempel and Charles van Doren into class and race stereotypes. He has presumed to know what Mr. Van Doren and his father said to each other in private. He has made a central figure of Richard Goodwin, who played a minor part in the quiz show investigation, and has left out Joseph Stone, of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, who broke the conspiracy. He has suggested, without evidence, that NBC President Robert Kintner, and the advertising director of the sponsoring pharmaceutical company, were witting participants in the conspiracy, and perjurers as well. Redford also telescoped a three-year episode into little more than a week.

Why did Redford take such liberties with known history? It was necessary, he says, for dramatic effect. But wasn't that the rationale for rigging the quiz shows in the first place? So, ``Quiz Show'' becomes a morality play within a morality play. In telling how the quiz show fooled the public, it fools the public all over again. And, unlike the show ``Twenty One,'' which only fooled the public for its own amusement, ``Quiz Show'' deals with real people, defenseless in the face of words put into their mouths and motives imputed to them.

But hey, it makes a great story, right? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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