Will Stupid Human Tricks Turn Off Letterman's Fans?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

A man who makes his living mocking such ripe targets as philandering politicians has suddenly become a national punch line.

A veteran entertainer who comes into people's homes when most of them are in bed has now confessed to "creepy" behavior.

David Letterman got out ahead of an embarrassing sex scandal by breaking the news himself, telling viewers Thursday that he did in fact have sexual relations with those women, who, by the way, happened to work for him. And while the CBS host is clearly the victim of a bizarre extortion plot, he has also instantly become a 62-year-old married man with an image problem.

"Every time he cracks one of those jokes," says former CBS and NBC producer Steve Friedman, "you'll look at him in a different way, won't you?"

Letterman, who has been doing late-night comedy since 1982, has never marketed himself as a choirboy, but admitting he had sex with subordinates leaves a whole lot of unanswered questions. He was awkward on Thursday's show, veering between angst and subdued humor, as he described the "scary" ordeal of trying to protect himself, his family, the other women -- and his job.

Ken Sunshine, a veteran public-relations specialist, minimizes the professional fallout for Letterman: "He didn't murder anybody. He was extorted. It's consenting adults. Nobody's accusing him of rape. This is shoplifting, maybe. . . . Unless someone accuses him of using his position to forcibly come on to some of the women, to me, it's none of my damn business."

Michael Sitrick, a Los Angeles publicist, says the public "is more forgiving of someone in the entertainment business" than elected officials. "He had sex with women in the office, and there will be some people upset about this -- but I'm not sure his audience really is. If a woman had said, 'Look, I worked for him, I kept resisting but I was afraid I'd lose my job,' it would be different."

In an era when political sex scandals have become a front-page staple -- John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, to name a few -- Letterman's dalliances might be brushed off as commonplace. And by framing the story with himself as the victim (CBS News producer Robert "Joe" Halderman was charged in a $2 million extortion plot Friday), he avoided the drip-drip-drip of incremental disclosures.

But the puzzle still has missing pieces. Did 34-year-old Stephanie Birkitt, a Letterman assistant who later moved in with Halderman, get a prominent on-air role because of a relationship with the comedian? Who are the other women? Did any of them feel pressured by Letterman?

"He's being treated differently because he's a favorite of the press," says Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of communication at Boston University. The liberal-leaning media, Berkowitz says, "are cutting him slack they wouldn't if it was a CEO or a senator. It's still abusing your role as a boss." While there may be some sympathy for Letterman because of the extortion scheme, he added, "he's being blackmailed for something he really did do."

Radio host Don Imus struck a harsher note, telling Fox News that Letterman is "an angry, mean-spirited jerk."

Friedman sees a bumpy ride ahead. With journalists pouncing on numerous affairs by politicians, he says, "it will be pretty hard to persuade the press that we should respect his zone of privacy."

CBS News began reporting the story online and on the radio Thursday night, including details that had not been confirmed by the parent company. The Letterman saga led Friday's "Early Show" as well as the other network morning shows.

"We're not covering it any differently than a scandal in the Commerce Committee," says Rick Kaplan, executive producer of "CBS Evening News." "We're going after all the characters. There's a certain degree of heartbroken-ness by a lot of people who knew Joe. But it's not like anybody here knew anything about it. Our investigative unit is trying to dig into Joe and David and all of them."

Other entertainment figures have survived their brush with scandal. Hugh Grant, after being busted with a prostitute, famously had to answer Jay Leno's question: "What the hell were you thinking?" (The Leno option isn't exactly available to Letterman.) Marv Albert was fired as an NBC sportscaster after pleading guilty to misdmeanor charges of biting and assaulting a longtime girlfriend, but hired back less than two years later.

Letterman's nightly platform is different, one that requires viewers to see him as a fair-minded jokester. He recently poked fun at South Carolina's governor, saying: "Mark Sanford didn't really enjoy this year's Fourth of July. He left his favorite firecracker in Argentina." In 1997, even before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Letterman joked about a near-collision involving Air Force One: "Thank God no one was injured, though a flight attendant was thrown from President Clinton's lap."

And sometimes Letterman goes too far. In June, he apologized to Sarah Palin for a joke about her daughter getting "knocked up" by Yankees star Alex Rodriguez. After hesitating for several days, Letterman said: "I told a joke that was beyond flawed, and my intent is completely meaningless compared to the perception."

Letterman has been more openly political, and tilted more to the left, in the past year. He savaged John McCain during the campaign for canceling an interview with him and said that Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly "doesn't really care much about telling the truth." Last month, by contrast, he conducted a remarkably friendly interview with President Obama.

What happens next depends on the course of the investigation, Letterman's handling of new revelations and whether other comics lay off their comrade. CBS clearly has a great deal invested in its late-night star. But it's not hard to come up with a Top Ten List of reasons why Letterman needs to tread carefully.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company