For Vanity Fair
At this moment, there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien combined. Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true.
Late-night talk shows have long snubbed female writers. (“Blaaaaame Johnny!”) Now old charges of sexism have joined new concerns about sexual harassment, triggered by an alleged extortion plot that prompted David Letterman to admit on-air, “I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.”
Most media stars responded by defending one of their own. On The View, Barbara Walters remarked that Dave “is a very attractive man” and offered a blanket excuse for his in-house affairs: “Where do you meet people? In the workplace.” Joy Behar took a tougher stance and argued that his behavior might have created an atmosphere that’s uncomfortable for other female employees, especially “if you’re one of the girls who works there and [are] just doing your job.” But Walters had little sympathy for the working girls. “Maybe you’re annoyed today, but that’s not necessarily sexual harassment,” Walters said. “It isn’t sexual harassment,” she added.
For those of us in the TV news industry Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post’s media critic and host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” is the oracle of media analysis. On Wednesday, I called him at home before he made his way to CNN’s Washington bureau for a segment with Anderson. In our pre-interview I asked him about Late Night’s sex-extortion-explosion.
“How’s Letterman handling it”? I asked.
“Lots of people think he’s free and in the clear but I think the jury is still out. There’s a lot we don’t know yet and that could be a problem for Letterman,” he said. “The second this happened I said his ratings would be on fire. Everyone wants to watch the apology and does he poke fun at himself? The long-term question is the real one here. Will the audience see sleeping with a subordinate as something they can overlook?”
I reminded Kurtz that this week the National Organization for Women blasted David Letterman, accusing him of promoting an uncomfortable work environment. The organization’s statement said the scandal raises serious questions about inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more from Terry O'Neill on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.
President, National Organization of Women
Recent developments in the David Letterman extortion controversy have raised serious issues about the abuse of power leading to an inappropriate, if not hostile, workplace environment for women and employees.
In the case of Letterman, he is a multi-million dollar host of one of the most popular late-night shows; in that role, he wields the ultimate authority as to who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets raises, who advances, and who does entry-level tasks among the Late Show employees.
As "the boss," he is responsible for setting the tone for his entire workplace – and he did that with sex. In any work environment, this places all employees – including employees who happen to be women -in an awkward, confusing and demoralizing situation.
Most women can attest to the fact that many workplaces are plagued with inappropriate behavior by men in power. The latest Letterman controversy sheds new light on the widespread objectification of women in the workplace.
We recently received a call from a man in Rockford, Ill., who wanted to get advice from NOW about what to tell his 16 year-old daughter who was confused by reports on the latest Letterman controversy. The father raised his daughter to be a feminist. He raised her to stand up for herself. He raised her not be objectified as a sexual object.
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