Just as America settled into a laissez faire consensus on office sex, some new confessions out of Fort Letterman have appeared to remind us of why we're all against the bosses-sleeping-with-their-employees thing in the first place.
Today's exhibit: a piece on vanityfair.com by former Letterman staff writer Nell Scovell provides some stark reminders of why working in an office where the boss gets it on with their assistants is maybe not so fun if you are a female staffer who the boss is not getting it on with. Particularly if you are in a workplace like Letterman's, where clearly if you are a woman you have a greater chance being appointed acting head of the Taliban than climbing the ladder to the Dave's inner circle.
Scovell opens her piece with a reminder of the stark odds awaiting women who dare enter the hallowed talk show ranks. Of the 50-some staff writers toiling on the Letterman, Leno and Conan O' Brien staffs, exactly zero are female. For those keeping track, that is lower than the female percentage of the US Supreme Court (22%), serving in the US Senate (17%), and officers of Fortune 500 companies (15.7 %). (Zero percent also ties the current Gawker masthead.)
After recounting her thrill at getting to join the heady Letterman ranks, Scovell remembers difficult reality setting in:
Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let's address the pertinent questions. Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.
Here's what I did: I walked away from my dream job. The show picked up my option after 13 weeks; then, about two months later, while looking for a nicer apartment, I realized I didn't want to commit to a yearlong lease. I'd seen enough to know that I was not going to thrive professionally in that workplace. And although there were various reasons for that, sexual politics did play a major part.
She goes on to rebut the frequently offered charge that there would be more women writing for late night talk shows if more qualified women comedy writers were to available. That argument can quickly be countered by going through the little to no effort the shows make to find or groom female writers. But any attempts to reach out a little are thoroughly stymied by the specter which haunts all late night big wigs - the specter of not being able to make fart jokes in the writers room if chicks are hanging out.
Meanwhile, over in this week's New York Mag, Robert Kolker continues the work of sorting through Letterman's staff horror stories and digging deeper into a personality which has become increasingly isolated and tyrannical. Some highlights:
• Dave has pushed away most of his close friends and associates, communicating with his staff now almost entirely via his coterie of seven assistants, whom themselves, out of his paranoia, Letterman attempts to keep sealed off from the rest of the staff.
• Says a former staffer: "There's a level of mind games and chess that goes on, starting from the top down. They rule by fear. You don't want to make Dave mad or so-and-so mad, so you better do a good job. Everyone there is scared of their shadow all the time."
• As has been noticed, Letterman does not go for the swimsuit models of the world, favoring non-threatening sassy girls who are sharp enough to see through him. As one former staffer puts it in the piece, "You see he's going for personality as well, but I think he's also going for easy targets. He's not setting himself up for rejection. He's not going to ask the head of the cheerleading team to prom. He's going to ask the head of the band or something."
• It seems possible that Stephanie Birkitt was two-timing Joe Halderman with Letterman. And that when he found out about their relationship, amazingly after it was witnessed by TV doctor Bob Arnot, he was so upset that the whole blackmail thing might just have been his way of getting even.
• On Halderman, a quote which should be posted over the front door of every news institution on Earth: "You can be a great journalist and a lowlife frat boy."
So there it rests for now, but the more that comes out it becomes increasingly difficult to see how Letterman withdraws his public persona back into the shell where its lived all these years and returns to life as the cypher in our midst.