Preoccupied as I have always been with our culture's lack of interest in (if not downright ignorance of) history, I found myself wondering if anyone in the ad:tech San Francisco audience knew who Van Doren was or how he became involved with Encyclopædia Britannica. I decided to see what Wikipedia had to say about the guy. There at the top of the entry was this photograph of one of his appearances in the quiz show Twenty One (he's the one on the far right), when his winning streak was ended by opponent Vivienne Nearing (on the left, with host Jack Barry in the middle):
The capsule summary that begins the entry is:
Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926), a noted American intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. He confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.
This is a man best known for his involvement with one of the first major scandals on the business-of-entertainment side of commercial television. At the time the scandal broke, Van Doren had even been offered a three-year contract with NBC to serve as "cultural correspondent." At a time when politicians were using the noun "egghead" in ridicule, NBC had his on a way to make money off of a full-fledged intellectual! The Wikipedia entry then outlines the road that led to Encyclopædia Britannica (and beyond):
Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from his post of assistant professor at Columbia University. But his life after the scandal proved anything but broken; as television historian Robert Metz wrote (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), "Fortunately, ours is a forgiving society, and Van Doren proved strong in the face of adversity." He became an editor at Praeger Books and a pseudonymous (at first) writer, before becoming an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the author of several books, of which the simplified text, A History of Knowledge may be his best known. He also co-authored How to Read a Book, with philosopher Mortimer J. Adler [actually an updated edition of a book Adler had previously written on his own].
As I understand it, Adler was one of the few willing to offer him a helping hand after he had been tainted by scandal.
So, even if Van Doren's remark about radicalizing the encyclopedia may have been appropriate, did Wales really have to choose him as a source? My guess is that, with a little bit of poking around (even around Wikipedia), he could have found a spokesperson whose reputation would not raise red flags of credibility. Alternatively, he could had assumed (probably correctly) that, even with the film that Robert Redford made, no one recalled or cared about Van Doren's past. Indeed, Wales might well have been rubbing his audience's collective faces with their cultural amnesia (which would involve far less work than search out a better source). That would definitely have been a clear instance of chutzpah; but, even if such an aggressive motive was absent, there is enough outrageousness about this act to justify giving it the Chutzpah of the Week award.