Will Women Stop Watching Dave?

According to the AP, David Letterman's audience was 58% female last season. But will that change now that he's admitted his relationships with female staffers?

Some say Letterman will run into trouble with female viewers. Media analyst Steve Adubato told Meredith Vieira Friday that "a fair number of people, disproportionately women, are going to say, 'Give me a break, Dave. You had the power, you did this over a period of time, and you're making jokes about it. We don't think it's funny.'" NBC's Ann Curry agrees. She told the AP's David Bauder,

The men I've talked to think, `How could a person within your own company kind of betray you like this?' But the reaction I'm hearing from women is completely on the other end. They're saying, `How could you have affairs, multiple affairs, with members of your own staff and how does that create a fair and equal working environment?'

Everyone agrees that Letterman's image will suffer if more serious allegations come out, like coercion or favoritism. Kathie Lee Gifford says any story of a relationship between a boss and a subordinate makes her suspicious about pressure: "They might have been very willing partners who initiated it. We don't know, but the minute we hear stories like that we go, `Uh-huh.'" And Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center, says, "The other staffers have to say whether (these women) were given advantages in the workplace. These are very problematic issues." But as of now, additional claims about David Letterman's conduct — like the suggestion that he kept a "secret bedroom" above his studio for sleeping with female employees — remain on the level of rumor. And if they never go beyond that, many women may be willing to give him a pass.

Former NOW president Kim Gandy says,

I don't really care who someone sleeps with as long as it's not coerced and as long as there's not some explicit or implicit promise of favors or the like. It's another adult - it's not a minor. If that's all it is, he's a single guy and he had a fling.

Many Jezebel commenters took a similar attitude in Friday's thread about Letterman, with some arguing that to blame Letterman for relationships with women was itself sexist, as it denied the women's agency. Those who take this view will probably continue to watch Letterman's show, if they did so in the first place. But what about those more critical of his behavior? Will they actually vote with the remote?

On Saturday, Hortense asked a similar question about celebrities who support Roman Polanski: "When this story fades away a bit, will we all be able to go back to watching Wes Anderson films, or Martin Scorsese films, or anything Natalie Portman stars in without thinking, "This person is a rape apologist?"" Letterman's conduct, as she points out, is nowhere near as severe as Polanski's crime. But he did have sex with subordinates, and many people (including me) believe that necessarily creates an unfair workplace, both for those who had sex with him and those who didn't. He did a bad job as a boss in one key way: good bosses don't have sex with employees. But he's done a good job as a comedian, and Bauder calls his show "nearly must-see TV." Ultimately, is that all that matters?

One thing the large-scale defense of Polanski shows is that if you entertain people, they will forgive you almost anything. And Letterman needs a lot less forgiveness than Polanski. As Steve Adubato pointed out, Letterman has mocked other public figures for their sexual indiscretions over the years, and he may find it harder to do so now that he has some of his own. But some of the support for Letterman may come from a love of his show and his dry, witty persona, and as long as nothing more damning comes out, this support is unlikely to ebb.

Letterman did do something wrong, but not something so heinous that he's necessarily deserving of a total boycott, and I'm not convinced that we should always reject artistic and entertainment products because we disapprove of their producers. At the same time, our affection for those products shouldn't allow the producers to escape moral and legal judgment. Letterman may never receive the latter, but he deserves the former — and we shouldn't spare him just because we think he's funny.

Will Women Viewers Turn Away From Letterman? [AP]
Did David Letterman Ruin His Image? Experts Weigh In [USA Today]
Today Show: Was Letterman's Full Disclosure A Good Idea? [MSNBC]