The very real and un-funny issue at the heart of David Letterman's extortion scandal

In a shocking opening to the "Late Show" last night, David Letterman took nearly ten minutes to unravel the story of being extorted by a CBS employee, helping lead authorities to the suspect, and admitting to the Grand Jury, and now his audience, that the talk show host had sex with female employees.

Letterman eventually stated outright that the $2 million extortion threat included evidence of "creepy things" he'd done.

"[T]he creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. My response to that is yes, I have. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Yes, it would, especially for the women," Letterman told his viewing audience.

He explained that the situation was frightening and that he feared for the safety of his family. Letterman seemed to follow a sensible protocol, consulting his attorney, working with police to issue a phony check to the suspect, and offering details of his experience and his sexual relationships to the Grand Jury. That process led to the arrest of Robert J. "Joe" Halderman, a producer on the CBS true-crime TV show, "48 Hours," who Letterman said threatened to write a book and screenplay about the "terrible things" Letterman did. Halderman was indicted on one count of attempted first-degree grand larceny, punishable by five to 15 years if convicted..

At first, it appeared that Letterman handled this with the same aplomb he did when he came under fire for discussing Sarah Palin's daughter on air in June. He shared the story in a confident and straightforward manner, sprinkling in jokes and patented looks that have kept audiences loyal during his decades-long career.

When I read about his admission and saw his quotes on the page, I felt proud of Letterman for stepping forward, raising his hand, and telling the people who watch him nightly what he'd done.

But when I saw the whole monologue on video, most of that melted away.

As Letterman tells his story, the audience laughs. Hey, he's funny. And his insertion of jokes and pauses was purposeful and well-played. Even when the audience seems confused, they continue to laugh. (I'm not the only one who noted the tension underlying the tittering -- do read this subtle but eyebrow-raising commentary from the Washington Post's TV reporter.)

Then something really disturbing happened. Letterman turned the monologue into a bit about how surprised he imagines the audience and the Grand Jury were that he's ever had sex at all, completely ignoring the fact that the people he had sex with were on his staff.

He didn't side-step that fact. He turned away from it completely. While he does refer to the women involved and their choice in making the relationship public, he doesn't address that they worked for him.

"It's been a very bizarre experience," Letterman said. "I felt like I needed to protect these people. I need to protect my family. I need to protect myself. Hope to protect my job."

I won't jump to conclusions about who the women were or who pursued whom or the reasoning behind entering into a sexual relationship with your boss. However, it needs to be noted that whenever people in a hierarchical work environment have a personal relationship, there are power politics involved.

I don't think the point here is that the relationships were presumably consensual and between two adults. I think the point is that a high-profile boss had multiple sexual relationships with his employees and that isn't being addressed.

That disturbs and disappoints me. I'd like to say that I think Letterman handled this well, that his private relationships are his own business, that he followed the letter of the law and helped get this suspect arrested, and that those actions would make it all OK.

But I keep coming back to the fact that this man is a boss who is laughing off having sexual relationships with his employees. Not one relationship, not one instance.

Now that I've seen Letterman's admission and cringed as the audience applauded and laughed along, I will be waiting to see how CBS responds. I will be watching to see who speaks up to say whether the corporation carries any kind of policy about superiors engaging in intimate relationships with employees.

It also needs to be noted that, in many corporations, this kind of behavior falls under the very serious heading of sexual harassment.


This analysis by Time Magazine is spot-on:

"While Letterman seems to be in no immediate risk of losing either his family or his job (ratings from last night's telecast will likely be stratospheric), his troubles may not be over. Having sex with people who were his employees or whom he managed could leave him, or CBS, open to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. It's certain the comedian has given the network's lawyers plenty of reasons to be up at night.

"Letterman has also probably given truckloads of material to other comedians - or even his own writers. Let's just say he may come to regret calling his company Worldwide Pants."

Although there are some compelling arguments being made about how Letterman's power is dangerous to him in this moment, I don't think Letterman is going anywhere. As Newsday.com's Verne Gay points out, this could become dangerous for all of us watching and listening. Gay highlights that this the problem here is the potential for a situation where a boss who did not hold himself to the highest professional standards turns it into a bit, or where he and other comedians make (more) gags out of historical scandals involving inappropriate sexual behavior, or where jokes could make light of the women who did and still do work for him.

Honestly, I don't have any investment in his private life. But I do think it is sad that the real issue, the core of the matter here, has yet to be seriously addressed.

I can give credit to the talk show phenom for taking the matter into his own hands and making a public statement about it before the press got to the story. But what I really want to hear him admit that the reason it was "terrible" or "creepy" (his words) or disturbing (mine) is that he was their boss, he was the person in charge.

Did you laugh or cringe at David Letterman's admission? Is a boss having sexual relationships with his employees a serious matter or can it ever be satire?


Watch Letterman's monologue in full here.


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Many thanks to Manage Your Life's Dory Devlin for assisting in research for this post.


[photo via: Yahoo! News]