© 2023 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Adage: Cheaters Never Win. Fenster's Book: 'Cheaters Always Win'


In June 1955, "The $64,000 Question" debuted on CBS. It was a big money quiz show, high on drama, and it turned out it was also rigged. Julie Fenster in her latest book "Cheaters Always Win" looked at why so many people were captivated by that show.

JULIE FENSTER: They would have one contestant who would sit in a little booth, and you'd get basically one question per week. It started out miniscule, but as we know, the questions were supposed to get harder. But the key was that each person only answered questions on one subject. So part of the appeal from the producer's point of view was to get strange pairings of people and their expertise. So there was a jockey who was an expert on fine art.

KING: (Laughter).

FENSTER: You know, those were the kind of grabber pairings that the producers really, really loved. And then very few people got to the $64,000 question, but the ratings skyrocketed as the people went up the ladder.

KING: But something was going on behind the scenes, which was...

FENSTER: Manipulation and cheating (laughter). The producers couldn't leave well enough alone with their hit show. They wanted some contestants to exit stage right, and they thought the charismatic ones should stay around. So for the ones they were tired of, the producers would come up with questions that were beyond difficult. And for the people that they kind of liked and wanted to stick around, they would, in casual conversation, mention some arcane fact as though it would - just came up that the president of Brazil might have had a wife named Darcy (ph). But fascinating, isn't that?

KING: They would say it, like, over lunch. It wasn't like, hey, we're handing you the answers. It was like...


KING: It was - as you say, it was in casual conversation.

FENSTER: Maybe even a stagehand would mention something.

KING: Lots of TV game shows in the '50s were up to the same tricks. You might remember the movie "Quiz Show" from the 1990s. It was all about that. But not all the contestants on these shows were willing to cheat, and Julie Fenster writes about one woman in particular who had a chance on the $64,000 question and didn't take it

FENSTER: Well, the person that did not cheat was Dr. Joyce Brothers, who started her public life as a contestant on "The $64,000 Question" when she was just another face in the crowd in New York City, circa 1956.

KING: Tell us about Dr. Joyce Brothers and what she refused to do, essentially...


KING: ...Which she pulled off.

FENSTER: Yeah. Next time anybody tells you that, oh, everybody does it, regarding cheating, you've got to remember Dr. Joyce Brothers because she wanted to go on the show. She was a very well-educated scholar in psychology, and they said nobody wants to look at an intellectual woman and hear about psychology. Why don't you become an expert on something like boxing?

KING: (Laughter).

FENSTER: They thought they'd never see her again. Dr. Joyce Brothers had an encyclopedic mind, and she studied book after book after book - encyclopedias of boxing, old clippings about boxing. And it only took her about six weeks. And she went back to the producer and said, I'm ready to be a contestant regarding boxing.

KING: And then she gets on the show, and she wins, surprising everyone because they didn't expect her to know everything. They didn't expect her to know anything.

FENSTER: Anything, right (laughter).

KING: And she keeps winning.

FENSTER: Yeah. And they're asking her harder and harder and harder questions each week she kept coming back. And now the producers are saying she's run her course. They were scrambling, talking to experts on boxing, talking the old boxers, trying to find questions that nobody in the world could answer.

KING: (Laughter).

FENSTER: And she did. And she won the $64,000 question. And then as you just mentioned, Noel, there was a tremendous scandal. These game show producers were cheating. They were also, you know, enticing the contestants into cheating, too. The New York district attorney looked into it. The U.S. Congress looked into it. That was the subject of "Quiz Show."

And the New York district attorney actually brought Dr. Joyce Brothers in to the grand jury and peppered her with questions. The whole day, she had to answer boxing questions because he was so sure that she had been fed the answers, and she answered them all correctly. She batted them out of the park.


FENSTER: So, you know, as a student of cheating, she really is important because some people don't have to cheat. They are really good at what they do.

KING: What keeps a person from cheating? You did all of this research. At the end of the day, if I were to ask you, what is it about a person that prevents them or forbids them from cheating when so many of us do it?

FENSTER: The book's divided into two sections - first, people who get cheated and, second, people who cheat. Within one of those sections is why some people don't. One is family pride, just the mortification, if your family is embarrassed by your cheating. That's one of the strongest.

Another one that's interesting, I found, is just sheer pride. The people who say, I don't - if I don't have it, I don't even want it. And I think what I found most interesting is how many people do not even consider cheating, and this is why the current atmosphere in which those same people who would never cheat, but they kind of accept it in other people to a greater degree.

KING: You write about game shows. You write about athletes - a lot about athletes.


KING: You write a lot about card players. You write a ton about students. You write almost nothing about politicians, who, when I think of cheating, rightly or wrongly, I would say they're the first group that ambles into my mind. Why didn't you write anything about politicians?

FENSTER: Well, in a way, the whole - every word in the book is about politics because when we look at President Trump, the first self-admitted cheater to be taken seriously as a nominee, let alone to be elected - he did admit to philandering as a husband or in other people's marriages as well. Now, that's made me wonder, was he so special that he changed the attitudes of voters, or was it - my thesis is that actually the voters changed first; the country changed in their attitudes toward cheating.

So the book is sort of asking why so many politicians today, their tolerance seems total. And I almost write this saying that there can't be such a lack of character on the part of so many politicians without it being a political calculation. So if I, in the book, didn't talk about the politicians and their cheating, it's because I'm trying to find out if the electorate changed first.

KING: Julie Fenster, author of the book "Cheaters Always Win: The Story Of America." Thank you so much for being with us.

FENSTER: This was such a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.