How David Letterman is able to control the narrative on affairs

With his own network show seen by millions, Letterman can spin the sex-scandal story his own way without facing tough questions. At least for now.

TV host, David Letterman, as he tells his story during a taping of his late-night show Thursday, that he had sexual relationships with female employees and that someone tried to extort $2 million from him over the affairs. CBS says an employee has been charged with attempted grand larceny in the case.

David Letterman may be in the doghouse at work (and possibly at home) for the foreseeable future as a result of the on-the-job affairs to which he admitted on-air. But he's getting high marks from several PR professionals, media watchers, and legal observers.

"Letterman's approach to the extortion attempt against him is pitch-perfect," says public relations professional James McIntyre, senior communications counsel at McClenahan Bruer Communications, adding that he did the same for revelations about his personal behavior. "The most straightforward approach to a scandal is 'face it and replace it,' which sums up what Letterman has done here."

Often, celebrities and politicians alike cower when it comes to public accounting for misdeeds, says longtime public relations consultant Ron Sachs, who counseled then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles on how to handle the fallout from the murders of foreign tourists during the 1990s.

"They allow the news to break around them, then respond evasively and defensively," says Mr. Sachs, who points to a recent example of this behavior as South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.

"Instead of waiting for the scandalous facts about his dalliances with female members of his own 'Late Night' show staff to break on the national publicity landscape, Letterman 'outed' himself to his in-studio and viewing audience," says Sachs.

The story, which will now top entertainment and news headlines for at least a few news cycles, will be defined by the comedy star himself instead of others.

"Rather than the focus being on Letterman's behavior, the 'bad guy' is an alleged extortionist who tried to intimidate the comedic star," says Sachs.

This is classic Letterman rhetoric, says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Culture at Syracuse University. The folksy narrative, which began by encouraging his listeners to "come hear a story," was "Homeric," says Mr. Thompson, who adds that the modern comparison may be folk humorist, Garrison Keillor who casts human foibles in a sort of rosy narrative glow. It was a masterful demonstration of Letterman taking control of the story and defining it on his own terms.

There are important lessons even for cases that expand to include other legal issues, says Chris Cameron, professor of law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles and an expert in labor and employment law.

"It's probably best to confront bad news candidly and as soon as possible, and Letterman seems to be trying to do that," he says. "The history of sex scandals is that there is usually more to the story. We won't know for awhile if there is more to the story but it certainly helps that he took the bull by the horns." He points to former president Clinton's handling of the Monica Lewinsky affair as textbook examples of how not to handle a crisis.

"If he had admitted Monica Lewinsky right away, it would have been a problem, but it would have gone away. Also, Arnold Schwarzenegger was accused of groping and fondling actresses on the sets just before he became governor…. He sort of admitted he had been a bad boy – although he kept it vague – and it went away."

It helps to have a national TV show as a platform for controlling the message, points out Harry Brod, professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, adding "Letterman comes off looking good because politicians can't give their spin on TV without being asked uncomfortable questions: Were you honest with your primary partner, do you consider these relationships exploitative because you were their boss?"

Indeed, he adds, Letterman was able to control not only the narrative but the environment – a luxury most politicians don't have.

Staff writer Daniel Wood contributed to this report.


Top 10 reasons why David Letterman's sex saga is not funny. Read the Monitor's view here.


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