Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Aug. 30, 1999 /18 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Suzanne Fields
Arianna Huffington
Tony Snow
Michael Barone
Michael Medved
Lawrence Kudlow
Greg Crosby
Cathy Young
Kathleen Parker
Dr. Laura
Debbie Schlussel
Michael Kelly
Bob Greene
Michelle Malkin
Paul Greenberg
David Limbaugh
David Corn
Marianne Jennings
Sam Schulman
Philip Weiss
Mort Zuckerman
Chris Matthews
Nat Hentoff
Larry Elder
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Don Feder
Linda Chavez
Mona Charen
Thomas Sowell
Walter Williams
Ben Wattenberg
Bruce Williams
Dr. Peter Gott
Consumer Reports
Weekly Standard


$1 Million Question: How'd we get to be so stup-d? --
THE A&E CABLE NETWORK was in town recently to tape interviews for use in its acclaimed "Biography" series. "Biography" specializes in the life stories of prominent people who have influenced the history of their times, and A&E was here while preparing an episode on just such a person.

Vanna White.

Don't scoff. Vanna, the letter-turner on the "Wheel of Fortune" game show, is destined to be remembered far longer than most novelists, scientists or philosophers who have shared the planet with her during the last half of the 20th Century. That this says more about us than it does about Vanna. . . .

Well, let's just leave it at that.

And if "Wheel of Fortune," when it first came on the air, seemed to represent a certain dumbing-down of what America expects its quiz-show contestants to be able to demonstrate knowledge of -- i.e., filling in letters to complete words -- a new game show airing this summer seems to take it one step further.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" not only offers multiple-choice questions -- one asked where the blue dress worn by a certain former White House intern was purchased -- but allows contestants to call friends on the phone in search of answers they can't quite think of.

So Vanna's life story is soon to be immortalized on "Biography"; contestants in pursuit of a million dollars are given a list of answers to choose from, and are allowed to call their buddies if they still don't know. . . .

This is where we are as we approach the next century.

How long did it take us, as a nation, to become quite so stupid? At what level was general knowledge in the United States less than 50 years ago?

To find out, I checked my archives (all right, there are no archives; it's just a stack of old columns), and found a list of what quiz show contestants were expected to know in the 1950s, when television was new.

Today on "Wheel of Fortune," a contestant might be asked to solve this puzzle: -LL TH-T GLITT-RS IS NOT GOL-. That's in 1999. Now, compare:

In the 1950s, on "The $64,000 Question," an Italian-born shoemaker named Geno Prato was asked: What was the name of the Verdi opera that started Arturo Toscanini on his conducting career; in what country did he conduct it; where was the opera originally premiered; and on the eve of what holiday was it originally premiered?

Prato unhesitatingly answered correctly: "Aida"; Brazil; Cairo; Christmas Eve.

Bill Pearson, a jockey from California, was shown six portraits. He was told to respond with the subject, the artist and one teacher with whom the artist had studied.

He got all six: (1) Erasmus; Hans Holbein the younger; his father Hans Holbein the elder. (2) Pope Innocent X; Velasquez; Francisco Herrera. (3) Madame Carpentier and her two children; Renoir; Couture. (4) Charles I; Van Dyke; Rubens. (5) The Wyndham sisters; Sargent; Carolus-Duran. (6) Don Manuel Osario De Zuniga; Goya; Jose Luzan Martinez.

Richard McCutchen, a Marine captain, was given a menu from a 1939 Buckingham Palace dinner for the president of France and his wife. He was asked to describe each of the seven courses.

He did. Consomme, he said, "is a broth of either meat, fish or fowl stock. Cannelle is what is called a forcemeat -- a meat, fish or fowl dumpling." Truit saumone "is trout born, hatched in fresh water, which migrated to the sea and returned. Steelhead, we call them in this country." Maltaise "is a Hollandaise sauce with orange juice and a little orange peel in it." Corbeille "is a pure French word meaning either a basket of fruit or a basket of flowers, so let's say a basket of fruit." Chateau Yquem "is a sweet dessert wine from the Bordeaux district of Sauterne. . . ."

And on he went, until he had given every part of the answer correctly.

You may be thinking: Some of the quiz shows of the '50s were fixed, right?

Yes. But the point is, the American public believed that average citizens could answer questions like those. If you were smart enough to appear on a television quiz show, it was assumed that you possessed that depth of knowledge.

And today? We leave you with the words of Vanna White:


JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


08/27/99: Fun and games at Camp Umbilical Cord
08/25/99: How life has been changed by the woodpecker effect
08/23/99: If you don't like this story, blame the robot who wrote it
08/20/99: A four-letter word that has helped both Bob and Rhonda
08/18/99: They have picked the wrong country
08/16/99: From paperboy to stalker--how the news has changed
08/12/99: Why wasn't anyone watching his brothers?
08/10/99: Come to think of it, stars seldom are the retiring type
08/05/99: The national gaper's block is always jammed
07/29/99: 'Can you imagine the gift you gave me?'
07/27/99: A view to a kill -- but is this really necessary?
07/23/99: Some cream and sugar with your turbulence?
07/21/99: When your name is JFK jr., how do you choose to use it?
07/19/99: The real world is declared not real enough
07/15/99: The real victims of cruel and unusual punishment
07/13/99: A 21st Century idea for schools: log off and learn
07/09/99: Are life's sweetest mysteries still around the bend?
07/07/99: Of great minds, cream cheese and Freddy Cannon
07/02/99: The perfect spokesman for the American way
06/30/99: 'He's 9 years old . . . he trusts people'
06/28/99: A $581 million jackpot in the courthouse casino
06/25/99: A nighttime walk to a House that feels like a cage
06/23/99: At least give men credit for being more morose
06/18/99: On Father's Day, a few words about mothers
06/16/99: If work is a dance, how's your partner doing?
06/14/99: Should a dictionary ever tell you to keep quiet?
06/10/99: A story of Sex, the SuperBowl and your wife
06/07/99: Take a guess where "California Sun" is from
06/03/99: Of summer days, summer nights and pebbles in a jar
06/01/99: Putting your money where their mouths are
05/27/99: Pressed between wooden covers, the summer of her life
05/25/99:The lingering song of a certain summer
05/24/99:We could all use a return to the Buddy system
05/20/99: Now, this is enough to make James Bond double-0 depressed 05/17/99: It's midnight -- do you know where your parents are?
05/13/99: And now even saying "thank you" creates a problem
05/11/99: The answer was standing at the front door

©1999, Tribune Media Services