Friday, October 02, 2009

A Mess of His Own Making

Media pundits--and more than a few viewers--were stunned by David Letterman's confession of infidelity, which aired during Thursday's episode of his CBS talk show.

Explaining that he had been the victim of an extortion attempt, the host admitted to sexual affairs with female staffers who worked on his program. Letterman did not say how many women were involved, or when the relationships took place. However, media outlets say that one of the women is Stephanie Birkitt, who worked as Letterman's assistant for much of the last decade.

Birkitt recently lived with a man named Robert Halderman, who (coincidentally) is a producer for the CBS news magazine, 48 Hours. During his relationship with Burkitt, Halderman reportedly learned of her past affair with Letterman, and the host's sexual liaisons with other female staff members. Halderman allegedly threatened to expose the affairs if Letterman didn't pay him $2 million.

Mr. Halderman was arraigned Friday afternoon in New York on multiple counts of attempted grand larceny. He posted a $200,000 bond and was released. Halderman has retained attorney Gerald Shargel, who represented mafia don John Gotti, among other high-profile clients. After today's hearing, Shargel said the Letterman episode is "far more complex" than the extortion attempt described in court.

Letterman's on-air confession was clearly an effort to get ahead of the scandal, and depict himself as a victim. And, to a certain extent, he's right. Extortion is a dirty business that affects innocent parties as well--in this case, Letterman's wife and six-year-old son. What they knew about his affairs and the extortion attempt remains unclear. They will clearly suffer from the media firestorm that has been unleashed.

But it is also clear that Mr. Letterman's mess is one of his own making. According to the New York Post, the host's liaison with Ms. Birkitt began well after he entered into a long-term relationship with Regina Lasko, and continued until she gave birth to his son in 2003. The Post also reports that Letterman had affairs with other female staffers. One member of The Late Show staff told the paper that Letterman's extra-curricular activities were hardly a secret. "Even the interns knew about them," a source told People magazine.

And now, the rest of the world will learn the sordid details of those relationships. When Halderman and Birkitt split up, she left behind pictures and correspondence which the news producer used in his extortion attempt. Much of that information will be used as evidence in Halderman's trial. It's also a sure bet that Dave's various office paramours will also be called as witnesses. Describing the upcoming trial as salacious would be an understatement.

There's also the matter of the work environment at The Late Show. Based on what we've learned so far, it sounds like Dave was running his version of the ol' casting couch at the Ed Sullivan Theater. With news of Letterman's affairs now public, will any of Dave's former "girlfriends" now charge him with sexual harassment?

There are also suggestions that the late night host may have offered "incentives" to his former paramours to keep them quiet. He reportedly paid Ms. Birkitt's tuition at a New York-area law school, despite the fact that she left his company several years ago. Former employees describe Mr. Letterman as exceptionally generous, but paying tuition for a former girl friend might also be interpreted as "hush money."

When the talk show host made his vile crack about Sarah Palin's daughter, many conservatives hoped that Letterman would eventually get his comeuppance. We'll take a certain pleasure in watching his squirm through Halderman's upcoming trial and the additional revelations that will certainly come out. Couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.

ADDENDUM: While the expected trial--and press coverage--will trash what's left of Dave's reputation, don't look for him to lose his CBS gig, for a couple of reasons. First, with Conan O'Brien and The Tonight Show struggling, Letterman has regained the top spot in late night for the first time in more than a decade. What's the difference between a #1 show and a #2 or 3 show in a time slot? Millions of dollars a year in ad revenue, even in a soft market. With that kind of money at stake, CBS will be extremely reluctant to rock the boat.

Additionally, the network can always use the dodge that Letterman isn't a network employee. Technically, The Late Show is produced by World Wide Pants, the production firm owned by Letterman and his partners. Issues relating to personal conduct (including sexual harassment) will be referred to Letterman's firm, which will--predictably--decline comment.

Quite a change from the early days at CBS, when the network had rather strict policies on fraternization. If you've seen the movie Good Night and Good Luck, you probably remember the sub-plot involving two of Ed Murrow's producers, Joseph and Shirley Wershba. In the 1950s, the Wershbas were forced to conceal their marriage from CBS co-workers, because network policies said "two workers cannot coexist as one in holy matrimony."

Maybe that rule wasn't such a bad idea after all.


tfhr said...

This should yield some great "Top Ten" lists, right?

Augurwell said...

Is Letterman on the free Roman Polanski list? ... not that it matters.

Nancy Reyes said...

you don't have to get an unwanted sexual advance to sue under EEOC law.

If he gave goodies or promotions to his honeys, and you were passed over for that reason, you can sue.

Also, if his actions made the office sexually uncomfortable for others, you can also sue.

And if CBS let him do it to their employees, they can be sued (the EEOC law covers those not actually in your company, if your company allows it.)

So CBS might not be out of the woods yet.