By now people have had time to digest the story about the attempted blackmail of David Letterman. He announced on air last Thursday night that someone tried to extort $2 million from him to keep a screenplay about his sexual encounters with female staffers from going public. That someone is allegedly a 51 year-old CBS “48 Hours” producer named Robert “Joe” Halderman who reportedly also had a relationship with Stephanie Burkitt, one of Letterman’ s former staffers. A police source verified on Monday that pages from Burkitt’s diary were used in the foiled extortion attempt on the comedian.
What happens now is anybody’s guess. But David Letterman did a public and, although it may have been awkwardly revealed, a very brave thing. He came out with the story first and did not spare himself. He admitted on air that someone tried to extort money from him because they had evidence that he had sex with female staffers on his show. He said that was true. Letterman did not dress up his language with euphemisms or veil the explanation to protect himself. There was no reference to “relationships.” There were no excuses. He had sex with women on his staff and he said that those were “terrible things” that he had done. Letterman publicly apologized Monday night to his staff and to his wife, who he said was “horribly hurt” by his behavior.
But what about the alleged crime itself? Why aren’t we hearing from pundits and the press that Letterman did the right thing, that he went to the police and although potentially very embarrassing to himself, and his family, did not give in to blackmail? When does he get a little credit? Letterman broke no laws. He was not married at the time and sex between consenting (and unmarried) adults is not yet illegal. He may have used poor judgment in becoming involved with women who worked for him, but many people meet their spouses and significant others at work. Letterman’s wife Regina was, after all, a staff writer on his NBC show. And no one has come forward with charges of sexual harassment. At least the New York Times asked, “This is a scandal?”
The media is feeding the public appetite for salacious details about the Letterman “sex scandal.” (The very low-brow New York Post has a story about the “Letterman Love Nest.” ) But that’s only another side show in the endless 24-hour news cycle circus. Dave is not the villain here. Although he frequently refers to himself as a “dumb guy,” the real dummy is a guy who tries to cash a fake $2 million check for a blackmail payoff.
David Letterman has been the butt of his fellow comedians’ jokes and the target of creepy tabloid news stories.
But let’s remember that he is the victim of an alleged crime, felony extortion, that carries a potential prison sentence of five to fifteen years. Letterman did not buckle, he did not pay his blackmailer although he was allegedly told by Halderman that his ‘world was going to collapse around him” if he didn’t pay up. Letterman went to the police and set up a sting. It sounds like grace under pressure, the Ernest Hemingway definition of courage.
We Americans are terribly infantile in our snickering preoccupation with sex and who is having it. Blackmail isn’t pretty and it isn’t something to laugh at, even if it involves a famous comedian with a late night tv show.
Sources: “The Late Show with David Letterman” CBS
New York Times