By Marian Salzman, Tuesday, October 20, 2009, at 2:27 pm.
If you’re David Letterman, the answer is a giggly, snarky no. Every day, he’s the focus of more articles and blog posts, watercooler jokes and tweets; the latest is speculation about whether his CBS contract will end in 2010. As Verne Gay writes in Newsday: “And lest we forget, the Joe Halderman business is far from over, and in fact hasn’t even begun to warm up. How that minefield affects his future, of course, remains one of the great questions in TV in 2009.”
Lest we forget? No one is going to forget. The conversation about Letterman’s love life is incessant. Last weekend at the nail salon in my hometown in Connecticut, people debated the scandal with zeal—and admittedly with excessive venom because Stephanie Birkitt is reported to have lived in our community with Halderman.
It got me thinking: Is Letterman a pop culture icon who put his marriage up for debate, or is this a private matter for private citizens? When does the media machine need to flick the off switch? As my nails dried, I reached for my BlackBerry and delicately tweeted some questions. Here’s a tweet I got back on the topic:
jaymfriedman @mariansalzman re: letterman, since the glass house resident threw stones in the past, opens the door for public discussion
He has a point. Letterman has often mocked the foibles of politicians, from Bill Clinton to Sarah Palin to John Ensign. So his own exploits make him seem, to say the least, hypocritical. Why shouldn’t his behavior be held up to the same scrutiny?
As New York Times media critic David Carr wrote last Monday: “Mr. Letterman has erased the line between the joke and the person telling it. Last week, Entertainment Weekly put a photo illustration on its cover of Mr. Letterman not wearing pants. If it were someone other than Mr. Letterman, you could easily hear him saying, ‘Who wants to see that?’ The answer is almost no one.”
But for Letterman, a public figure whom—unlike politicians—we’ve invited into our homes late at night for decades, the answer is “lots of people.” Steve Martin explained it well when he appeared on the show October 5: “It proves that you’re a human being. We weren’t really that sure before.”
Letterman’s early ratings and the news that advertisers aren’t abandoning him have shown that people are indeed interested in the human saga. But there’s still the question of public versus private. Even Letterman’s handling of the disclosure—an on-air confession that began with him asking if his audience wanted to hear a story, then elicited much audience laughter—blurs that line. His adventures are a private affair, yes, but he took the lead in broadcasting the story.
Can he keep handling his PR on-air? When will the news cycle finish so he can take the matter private again? Will marketing classes be parsing this campaign for years to come?