Lesson of Letterman extortion, other blackmail cases: come clean

David Letterman, John Travolta, and Rick Pitino all foiled alleged extortion plots by going public and turning to police.

Steve Hirsch/Reuters
Television producer, Robert Joel Halderman, listens during his arraignment in New York Supreme Court for trying to extort $2 million from talk show host David Letterman. Halderman pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted grand larceny on Friday.

The strange spate of recent celebrity extortion cases has, if nothing else, reinforced the wisdom of this old saw: Honesty is the best policy.

Coming clean about one's own foibles isn't easy, especially when it has to be done in public and is likely to cause pain or embarrassment to others. But three celebrities – late-night TV host David Letterman, basketball coach Rick Pitino, and actor John Travolta –chose full disclosure when confronted recently with demands from alleged blackmailers.

It's hard to heap too many accolades on "The Late Show" star and the college basketball coach, both of whom confessed to extramarital affairs, for their truth-telling. They came forward, after all, only upon threat of losing millions of dollars to blackmail. Travolta, for his part, forfeited family privacy and revived the media glare on his teenage son's sudden death in January, in electing to pursue charges against his alleged blackmailer. That plot involved a document that the purported extortioner, a paramedic, claimed would place blame on Travolta for the boy's death.

Each will pay some kind of price for his candor – some higher than others, no doubt – but each evidently concluded that's preferable to paying someone else for his or her secrecy. In doing so, they disarmed their alleged blackmailers.

Here's how Pitino explained his decision in August to go public. "When you have a problem, if you tell the truth, the problem becomes part of your past. If you lie, it becomes part of your future."

Letterman, who admitted on air Thursday that he has had sex with women who work for him on "The Late Show," explained his decision this way.

"What you don't want is a guy saying, 'I know you had sex with women, so I would like 2 million dollars or I'm going to make trouble for you,' " Letterman said. It is better to expose his own secrets, he said, than to live under the threat of a blackmailer.

At least one Hollywood publicist, Michael Levine, says Letterman made the right choice.

"I think it was very important for him to get on offense, because nothing in this world is private any longer," he told CBS News Friday.

Others suggest these cases hold lessons for politicians whose professed values don't match their actions.

"There is a lesson here for all the politicians who indulge in affairs and then get enmeshed in crooked schemes trying to cover them up," said the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Cynthia Tucker, citing the scandals that have engulfed John Edwards, former Democratic candidate for president, and Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada.

Letterman has come under fire for the way in which he confessed – in a cavalier tone that could perhaps be confused with one of his comedic monologues. The audience, not seeming to grasp what Letterman was doing, kept laughing and applauding, even as he admitted to having multiple affairs with staff members and revealed that someone was attempting to use the affairs to blackmail him for $2 million.

But, however imperfect, the confession is out – and most commentators agree it had to be done.

"He had to get out their first. He had to tell the story. He had to acknowledge his part in it," said Lisa Bloom, legal analyst with CBS News. ("The Late Show" is a CBS program.) "I think he had to do what he did."


Should Letterman resign from "The Late Show"?

Click here for the Top 10 reasons David Letterman's sex saga is not funny.


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