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On October 1, late-night comedian David Letterman, host of the Late Show with David Letterman, shocked his audience by admitting on-air that he had been the victim of a two-million-dollar extortion plot. Letterman informed his viewers that he had received a package containing proof that he had done “terrible things,” along with a letter threatening to reveal these things in a screenplay and a book unless he paid two million dollars. Letterman went on to disclose the “creepy stuff” that the blackmailer had threatened to reveal–that he has had sex with women who work for him on his show–and to admit that it is, in fact, true.
In the aftermath of these shocking revelations, it has come to light that the alleged extortionist is Robert “Joe” Halderman, the producer of the CBS News true-crime show 48 Hours. Halderman has been charged with one count of attempted grand larceny and faces up to fifteen years in prison if convicted. It is believed that Halderman’s “proof” of Letterman’s affairs includes the diary and personal papers of Halderman’s girlfriend, Stephanie Burkitt, one of the women alleged to have had an affair with Letterman.
The fallout from the revelation of Letterman’s affairs remains uncertain. Several days after revealing the extortion plot, Letterman apologized on-air to his wife, Regina Laska, whom he said has been “horribly hurt” by his behavior. A subsequent study of Letterman’s viewers revealed that the majority found his apology sincere. The study also found that 23 percent of viewers have a more positive perception of Letterman since the scandal and 55 percent of viewers have had no change in perception, while only 22 percent reported a more negative perception. Furthermore, the Late Show has seen a spike in ratings since the scandal broke. Several commentators have pointed out that, unlike politicians or religious figures, people don’t view Letterman as a “moral barometer for anything.” From this perspective, it seems that the negative fallout for Letterman will be minimal.
However, commentators on the other end of the spectrum have found Letterman’s conduct highly offensive and have even called for CBS to fire him. These calls are partially grounded in the fact that the affairs occurred in the workplace context and may have violated CBS policy (although CBS denies that Letterman has committed any such violation). However, some concern has been expressed that the impropriety may be deeper than mere workplace affairs and may rise to the level of sexual harrassment. It has been noted that in cases of workplace romances between supervisors and subordinates, the supervisor puts the subordinate in an awkward position in which the subordinate may feel unduly pressured. In fact, in 2004, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly settled a sexual harrassment lawsuit by an employee who claimed she did not feel she could say no to her boss’s advances due to his position of power.
It seems somewhat strange that, in a time when society is fairly accustomed to revelations of extra-marital affairs by public figures, Halderman would have thought he could blackmail Letterman solely with the information that Letterman had sexual relationships with women who work on his show. This is particularly true given that Letterman is a comedian as opposed to a political or moral leader and that his affairs are alleged to have occurred prior to his marriage and the 2003 birth of his son (with now-wife, Lasko). Halderman’s attorney has insisted that there is more to the case than meets the eye and has stated that he looks forward to cross-examining Letterman. Indeed, allegations have already surfaced that Letterman may have paid for one of the employees in question, Burkitt, to attend law school. While this may not necessarily be illegal, it at least smacks of impropriety.
Only time will tell the true extent of Letterman’s conduct. If the situation did not extend past innocuous workplace romances, it seems likely that the scandal will blow over quickly and be dealt with, as it should be, between Letterman and his family. However, if Letterman did engage in inappropriate conduct rising to the level of sexual harrassment, the whole affair may be far from over.
– Tori Langton
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