Two Prominent Men in Sex Scandals, but Only One Feeding Frenzy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2009

David Letterman must have been in denial.

Here he was, the savvy satirist, the court jester for the post-irony generation, apologizing again for "having had sex with women who had worked on this show"-- a phrase guaranteed to give journalists heart palpitations. And yet "it did not occur to me," he told his audience last week, "that reporters and newspaper people and radio and TV would start pounding the staff and saying, 'Are you this and that?' and that is very, very unpleasant."

Indeed it is. But what made Letterman think he could offer an open-ended admission about sleeping with subordinates without sending the media into a frenzy? Perhaps he sees himself as occupying a different realm -- an entertainer who pokes fun at politicians for sexual shenanigans, not a public figure whose own dalliances are deserving of such scrutiny.

Yet while the Letterman saga has unleashed a tsunami of coverage, serious allegations involving Sen. John Ensign have barely produced a trickle.

The Nevada Republican had already acknowledged having an affair with an ex-campaign aide, Cynthia Hampton, who is married to the senator's former top aide. The New York Times reported 10 days ago that Ensign arranged for Doug Hampton to join a lobbying firm and lined up several donors as Hampton's clients. What's more, the Times cited interviews and records showing that Ensign and his staff, often at Hampton's urging, repeatedly intervened with federal agencies on the clients' behalf.

Was Ensign, whose parents just happened to give $96,000 to Cynthia Hampton and her family, trying to buy the couple's silence? Despite such troubling questions, the Ensign controversy barely exists on television -- although CNN's Dana Bash did manage to stake him out for a quick interview in which the senator said he'd violated no ethical rules and has no plans to resign.

The Ensign story is complicated and not very visual. Letterman is far more famous. So the comic is turned into media fodder and the officeholder largely stays under the radar.

In the quarter-century since he became a late-night host, Letterman has generally gotten good press. "The national Daddy," a New York magazine cover story called him last month. He has long been portrayed as more sophisticated than mass-appeal maven Jay Leno. Given that the CBS star was the target of what prosecutors call an extortion scheme, he undoubtedly expected to draw sympathetic coverage. And, for the first couple of days, he did.

But Letterman left too many blanks in the picture -- how many women, over what period of time? -- and reporters rushed to fill them in. They unearthed the strange love triangle involving his assistant -- and former girlfriend -- Stephanie Birkitt, who later moved in with the accused extortionist, CBS News producer Robert "Joe" Halderman. Then there was the former intern Holly Hester, who said Letterman broke off their year-long sexual relationship after concluding that the disparity in their ages was too great. (It took him that long to figure it out?)

Letterman's shrewd handling of the mess, mixing contrition with comedy, has drawn plaudits from most pundits. While "Letterman's talent doesn't give him a free pass," Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, it is "absurd to compare a jester (unmarried at the time) to Bill Clinton and other philandering pols. Officeholders run as devoted family men upholding old-fashioned values. They have ambitious public agendas and loyal acolytes whose futures depend on whether these leaders succumb to reckless dalliances."

But St. Petersburg Times columnist Eric Deggans wrote: "This is an example of a powerful entertainer having sexual relationships with young women who depend on him for their income and their careers. . . . This reminds me exactly of the moment the Lewinsky allegations were confirmed. Once again, an admired public figure admits a relationship with a woman many, many years his junior, who worked for him, after circumstances compelled the admission."

After several days, the National Organization for Women uncorked a statement urging CBS "to recognize that Letterman's behavior creates a toxic environment and to take action immediately to rectify this situation."

If Letterman were the chief executive of a defense contractor, instead of a TV production company, would the media critics be so quick to let him skate on sleeping with the help? Fortunately for Dave, he's a likable guy who doesn't have to "go on Oprah and sob," as he joked -- he has his own nightly forum to try to repair his relationship with the audience.

In a Rasmussen poll, 29 percent of those surveyed said they are less likely to watch the "Late Show" because of Letterman's admissions, while 5 percent said they are more likely and 63 percent it would have no impact.

America is a forgiving place when it comes to sexual matters. Eliot Spitzer, who hired prostitutes, has reemerged as a financial commentator, and ex-congressman Mark Foley, who sent sexually graphic messages to House pages, now has a radio show. In the end, it's Letterman's viewers -- not the media -- who will decide whether today's red-hot scandal becomes yesterday's yawn.

Engel's War

Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, has kicked up a fuss with some decidedly pessimistic comments on the war in Afghanistan.

"I honestly think it's probably time to start leaving the country. I really don't see how this is going to end in anything but tears," Engel said last week on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." He added: "The idea of going in to nation-build and win hearts and minds, I think, over the long term is kind of a loser."

That sounds awfully opinionated for a working reporter, but Engel says in an interview that he wasn't "taking sides. If it came across that I was giving my opinion or advocating one particular policy or another, I was just trying to reflect what I'm seeing on the ground. . . . A lot of Afghans tell me that over the long term there can't be a military solution to this."

Engel, who recently returned from Kabul and is going back Tuesday, says he's "not a military commander" and that it is probably necessary to beef up U.S. forces in the short term. But, he says, "the idea of sending in more troops for a population that isn't asking for protection just seems problematic."

Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News," takes issue with Engel's remarks: "The audience has to be convinced that our reporters are objective and unbiased, and I'd be concerned that expressing a personal opinion dilutes that, or worse."

Leaving Print Behind

Christina Bellantoni, White House correspondent for the Washington Times and a frequent television guest, has quit her job to join a liberal Web site.

Bellantoni says she was hired as "a really good political reporter," not a lefty commentator, by Talking Points Memo, whose readership has soared from 1.35 million unique visitors in May to nearly 2.1 million last month. TPM, founded by Josh Marshall, tapped Bellantoni to cover the White House and coordinate coverage for its new, four-person Washington bureau.

Other journalists have also flocked from print to online. TPM's editor at large is Matthew Cooper, Time's former White House reporter. As The Washington Post has downsized, assistant managing editor Bill Hamilton left for Politico and technology writer Jose Antonio Vargas jumped to the Huffington Post.

Is it odd for Bellantoni to land at TPM from the Washington Times, with its staunchly conservative editorial page? "Josh and I discussed this extensively," Bellantoni says. "There were similar concerns about the Washington Times, and I worked there for six years without really worrying about the guys who ran it and what their ideological leanings are."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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