Letterman's Hypocrisy Gets a Pass

Always use a picture of a weasel when describing one, they say...

The difference between David Letterman and Don Imus is, you can fire Don Imus. You cannot fire David Letterman--he makes too much money. He gets paid too much, he brings in too much ad revenue, and he brings a certain cachet to CBS that they cannot just go out and find. Sure, they could go and get Carson Daly, but would that really work out for all concerned? Of course not. The act of firing Letterman would bring revolt from local market affiliates, who count on Letterman's numbers following their evening news telecasts. Never mind that the business of television is coming apart at the seams--he's too big of a fish to throw back.

You already know quite a bit about the case, and you can follow the link to get the back story. I want to focus on the legal maneuvering behind the scenes and how this has wider implications for CBS. Bill Carter does some of that here:

For the intensely private Mr. Letterman, the revelations, which resulted from a bizarre extortion attempt, are sure to be extremely embarrassing, especially as he tries to extend his lead in the late-night contest. ”I have had sex with women who work for me on this show,” he told his audience on Thursday night, calling himself “creepy.” He added that he hoped “to protect my job.”

More seriously, they raised questions for both his company and CBS about whether his actions constituted sexual harassment or at least abuse of a power relationship over employees.

A central figure in the case — one of the women who did have a sexual relationship with Mr. Letterman, according to representatives of the show — is Mr. Letterman’s longtime personal assistant, Stephanie Birkitt, who also often appeared on the air. The sexual relationships had ended before Mr. Letterman was married in March, a Worldwide Pants executive said.

For CBS, the episode is doubly embarrassing. The network has been put in a precarious position of trying to steer clear of fallout from some highly questionable activities engaged in by its biggest star, who is experiencing his biggest surge in popularity (and ratings) in years.

At the same time, the man accused in the case, Robert Joel Halderman, known as Joe, who until last month shared a residence in Connecticut with Ms. Birkitt, is a longtime and well-respected producer for the CBS News program “48 Hours Mystery.”

Mr. Halderman, 51, pleaded not guilty to one count of attempted larceny, after he reportedly threatened to expose Mr. Letterman. According to prosecutors, Mr. Halderman gave Mr. Letterman, 62, a one-page screenplay treatment depicting the talk-show host as a great success whose “world is about to collapse around him” with revelations of his trysts. Mr. Halderman also handed over photographs, correspondence and a page of the personal diary of Ms. Birkitt.

Even by the frenzied standards of today’s tabloid media, the scandal has moved remarkably quickly. On Thursday, Mr. Halderman deposited Mr. Letterman’s check for $2 million (so he thought — it was a fake), then went to work at CBS News on the far West Side of Manhattan, where he sat in a story meeting before being met by arresting officers outside.

CBS executives, including Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS Corporation, knew nothing about the attempted plot and were informed of the matter only several hours before the taping of his Thursday show. Inside CBS’s headquarters, where employees can usually watch the Letterman show live on closed circuit, the extortion segment was not transmitted.

In private, CBS executives have told the Worldwide Pants executives that they continue to be supportive of Mr. Letterman. But they have included a note of caution in their supportive position, saying that would change only if information of a more damning nature were to emerge.

According to one person inside the company, CBS executives did quietly seek and receive assurances that none of the women Mr. Letterman was talking about were under age and that no woman who was involved with him had felt threatened about her job.

Many who commented on the case requested anonymity either because of the continuing legal action or because of the private nature of Mr. Letterman’s admissions.

I'm sorry to have to point this out to you, but even though everyone is an adult, and even though everyone is all friendly and whatnot, the boss nailing the interns and the hired help doesn't exactly make for a healthy workplace. Isn't that why everyone was so outraged, and rightly so, about President Clinton and his abuse of power? It's nice that the words "Bill Clinton" and "Monica Lewinsky" never appear in Carter's story. I certainly noticed it, but I do pay attention to these things.

Of course, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly does, because we cannot point out hypocrisy unless we're referring back to the political party that isn't in power right now:

Mr. Letterman himself seemed to acknowledge how messy his conduct had been. On Thursday’s show he told his audience that the extortion letter stated, “I know that you do some terrible, terrible things.”

Mr. Letterman said to laughter from the audience, “Sure enough, contained in the package was stuff to prove that I do terrible things.” He also said his affairs with women in the office were “creepy.”

Debra S. Katz, a civil rights lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said it would be “reckless” for CBS not to conduct an internal investigation.

“CBS is definitely going to have to speak with him and find out who he had relationships with,” she said. “They’re going to have to reach back and see if these women think that the relationships were welcome.”

Several longtime associates of Mr. Letterman said he has a long history of pursuing relationships with employees, dating to his first days on television on NBC in the early 1980s. At that time he was known to frequently date interns and other young women connected to his show, one associate said.

His first longtime relationship was with Merrill Markoe, who was his head writer on his NBC show, “Late Night With David Letterman,” and before they became a couple, Mr. Letterman and Ms. Lasko worked together on his show. Some veterans of the show said it was well-known inside the production that he had also had a close relationship at one time with another previous assistant.

Beyond any potential legal trouble, there is the open question about how fans will receive Mr. Letterman, who has long used his stance as a sarcastic comic commentator to ridicule the behavior of politicians and celebrities. “Today, The L.A. Times accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping six women,” he once said in a monologue. “I’m telling you, this guy is presidential material.”

Again, that's not the full story here. Letterman made bank with his nightly, incessant attacks on the character of President Clinton, specifically relating to Monica Lewinsky. Letterman told jokes about the sex lives of virtually every politician in the country while he, himself, abused his power and did whatever the hell he wanted. And now, he, himself admits it was "creepy."

There's nothing wrong with a few transgressions, and I certainly don't want to make the case for prudish appraisals here. But the years--decades--of hypocrisy from this man staggers the imagination. You can say whatever you like about Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, or Henry Hyde, but please don't forget to add Letterman's name to the list of old, sneering scolds who can't keep their tit out of a wringer.

It's too bad shame and hypocrisy just don't count for anything in this country anymore.