It's difficult to delineate a truly defining moment

September 26, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

I'm disappointed to learn that I blindly missed a defining moment in American history.

This has come to my attention in the many gushing reviews of a new movie called "Quiz Show."

The movie is loosely based on the true story of how a popular TV quiz show from the 1950s called "Twenty-One" was rigged to heighten suspense and boost ratings and profits.

Most of the critics say the movie is of great significance because the quiz-show scandal marked the loss of our national innocence.

Americans were supposedly stunned to discover that they couldn't believe everything they saw on their rabbit-eared TV sets. They were shattered by the revelation that Charles Van Doren, a bright, young college teacher and a member of a prominent literary family, had been slipped the correct answers and really wasn't as brilliant as he appeared.

And that is when we lost our national innocence, which is a serious loss, indeed.

It just shows how alert you have to be if you don't want to miss defining moments.

I owned a TV during much of the 1950s, and I vaguely recall watching a few segments of that tainted quiz show. I also vaguely remember the scandal.

But I stupidly failed to recognize its great significance -- namely .. the loss of my innocence and that of my fellow Americans.

Shortly after the quiz-show scandal, I forgot about it completely. And I haven't given one thought to Van Doren, the scandal and the rest of it until I read the scholarly movie critiques.

That's because I was a Chicagoan. As such, I was familiar with aldermen, bagmen, juice men, hit men and other exotic urban wildlife. I had a naturally suspicious nature and assumed most public activities weren't on the legit.

As for the honesty of TV, by the late 1940s our family tavern had one of the city's early sets. Those were the days when pro wrestling was one of the biggest hits, and everyone knew those outrageous matches were fixed.

In fact, the wise men of the tavern agreed that just about everything they saw on the tube was a fake. When bowling became popular, fat Eddie would say: "They oil the lanes for higher scores." When roller derby became a hit, skinny Chisel said: "If it wasn't rigged, they'd all get killed." When somebody read the news, Birdie said: "Hey, what's he know, sitting in front of a camera?"

But that is no excuse for any alert person missing so significant a defining moment as the loss of our national innocence.

My only excuse is that it is difficult for any American to keep track of defining moments.

If anyone did a computer search of the phrase "defining moment" in the general press, we would find that it has been used an estimated 1,286,543 times in the last year or two.

In modern journalism's socio-jargon, the only phrase even approaching "defining moment" might be "sea change."

I'm not completely clear on the difference between "defining moment" and "sea change." I suppose that if you have a sex-change operation, that is a "sea change" in your life. Of course, it might also be a "defining moment," if not for you, at least for the other guys on your softball team. So I'm still confused.

If Charles Van Doren punctured America's faith in TV, why do millions of Americans tune in every day to watch talk shows on which transvestite mothers-in-law describe their affairs with their sons-in-law?

While I would never argue with profound movie critics about defining moments or the precise time we lost our national innocence, these are debatable points.

Some might say that we lost our national innocence during the terrible slaughter and hardship of our Civil War. Or when tens of thousands of young men went off to die in World War I. And were there any innocents left after the Great Depression, World War II and the dropping of the A-bomb on Japanese civilians?

There are shrinks who say we lost our national innocence when the 1919 White Sox threw the World Series for gambling bribes. Cub fans might respond that they lost their innocence in the fall of 1969.

Others will argue that national virginity was violated by the Korean War. Or it was plucked when John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Or the debacle of Vietnam.

And what about Watergate? If I had a dollar for every time someone said that scandal shattered our national innocence, I could afford a nose job.

In most countries, defining moments and loss of innocence are the result of invasions, revolutions or the collapse of governments.

But in our society, defining moments are defined by movie and TV scripts. And the loss of national innocence is that poignant moment when a movie critic twitches.

By the way, I went to see "Quiz Show." I fell asleep. It was not one of my defining moments.

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