At the center of David Letterman's extortion scandal is Stephanie Birkitt, an assistant who appeared on the show and who apparently had sex with Dave. But as information about her leaks out, pundits are already asking whether we should care.
In the clip above from last night's Late Show, Letterman discusses some details of the extortion case — a blackmailer threatened to write a screenplay about Letterman's sexual relationships with employees — and admits to sleeping with women who worked for the show. According to TMZ, one of these women was Stephanie Birkitt, an assistant who appeared on the show both as herself and as various characters (including "Vickie" in the clip up top). She apparently dated and lived with the blackmailing suspect, "48 Hours" producer Robert "Joe" Halderman, and told him that she had had sex with Letterman. It's not clear whether her information inspired Halderman's whole plan, but it seems she wasn't involved in the blackmail — Radar reports that she's "mortified Halderman is using her fling with Letterman to blackmail her boss." Here's another one of her appearances on The Late Show:
It's a little creepy that the clip includes the phrase "let's hope the wife's not watching" — Letterman's own wife, Regina Lasko, can't have been thrilled to hear her husband publicly announce his affairs. Radar reports that Birkitt and Letterman were involved before Lasko and Letterman were married (in March of this year) and before the birth of their son (in 2003). But since Letterman started dating Lasko in 1986, and Birkitt didn't join the show until 1996, odds are good that he at one point cheated on his now-wife with his assistant. But last night's studio audience seemed either unaware of or unfazed by this fact. They laughed and, oddly, applauded when he admitted to sleeping with coworkers (possibly because they thought it was a joke). Which brings up the inevitable question: should Letterman's sexual history actually matter to people who watch his show? On the Today Show, Bonnie Fuller argued that it shouldn't:
Fuller says "we all know people who have office romances" and then adds some semi-coherent stuff about the difference between a "long-term relationship" and "a power relationship where you're the boss with the immediate subordinate." But we know that Letterman did have a relationship with his immediate subordinate, and the relationship may have resulted in some potentially unfair favoritism in pay. Gawker is reporting that Letterman paid Birkitt's law school bill as extra compensation, which sucks for all the employees who worked as hard as Birkitt but didn't get their education paid for. Fuller doesn't mention the problems boss-employee relationships can create for those not fucking the boss, who may be intentionally or unintentionally discriminated against in favor of the office paramour. And though she does throw out the phrase "power relationship," she doesn't explicitly point out the dangers for a subordinate sleeping with her superior, especially if that superior is David Letterman. There's no indication that Letterman ever did anything but help Birkitt, but it's not hard to imagine the fear that could enter any relationship with a powerful TV personality. What happens to your career if you have a fight? If you break up? These are questions any employee sleeping with a boss has to deal with, but they're even more pressing if that boss is a national celebrity. And the very possibility that the questions might need to be asked is a pretty good reason for someone like David Letterman to keep his hands off his assistants.
Plenty of people will say Letterman's indiscretions are none of our business, and talking heads are already clamoring to assert how little this scandal will affect his image. And it's true that after John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and every other big name with small reserves of self-control, it's hard to get too outraged about a guy sleeping around, even if it did create a potentially shitty workplace environment. Letterman's revelation is really pretty tiresome, leaving us to wonder if there's any male public figure who can actually keep it in his pants. At the same time, if we give him a pass, we basically admit that men have now abused their power so much that we're going to let them do it without criticism. And while Letterman's affairs with employees appear to have been consensual, fucking your assistant while she works for you is still an abuse of power. It's unfair to the assistant herself, and it's unfair to everyone who works with her. So if we can't muster outrage, we should at least be able to register disapproval — and maybe a little disgust.
Woman In Letterman Case Lived With Suspect [TMZ]
Letterman Says Someone's Extorting Him [TMZ]
CBS Worker Arrested In Letterman Blackmail Plot [AP]
Exclusive Details: The Woman At Center Of Letterman Extortion Plot [Radar]
David Letterman Extortion Details [YouTube]
Was Letterman's Full Disclosure A Good Idea? [Today]
TV Watch: Letterman's Confession: Calculation vs. Compulsion [NYT]
Gawker Exclusive: Letterman Said to Pay Assistant's Law School Bill [Gawker]