David Letterman's new temptation: Secrecy

David Letterman's handling of the "sextortion" plot against him was nothing short of brilliant. In 10 minutes of can't-look-away television, the Late Night host dealt squarely and matter-of-factly with his own "creepy" behavior while making it clear that he was the victim of someone far more sinister. It was a bravura performance.

So why doesn't he want anyone to see it? The New York Times reports that CBS has been asserting its copyrights in order to get unauthorized copies of the clip removed from YouTube; no authorized copy exists, either. The scrubbing took place at the behest of Worldwide Pants, Letterman's production company.Letterman is known as an intensely private man, a preference that has served him well: Surely part of the reason his admission of affairs with staffers hasn't (yet) aroused more opprobrium is that he's never been one to flaunt his wife and child as evidence of his regular guy-ness, or to rhapsodize about the pleasures of family life.

But, tempting as it may be, retreating back into his accustomed fortress of solitude, as Letterman seems poised to do -- he has said that he doesn't plan to say much more about the blackmail attempt or his own relationship history -- may not be Letterman's wisest move right now. His admission aroused suspicion along with the sympathy, and until that suspicion is put to rest -- until it's established that no employees ever felt harassed, pressured or unfairly shoved aside as a result of Letterman's on-set dalliances -- maintaining a dignified silence is going to be hard to distinguish from hiding something.

More broadly, Letterman should realize by now that, however much discomfort it causes him, opening up his mind and heart to viewers is often what produces his finest TV. When Letterman got emotional on camera after Sept. 11, when he talked about his open-heart surgery, when he exposed some of his personal politics in debating with Bill O'Reilly, those are the moments that have humanized him. Letterman is to be applauded for resisting the urge to turn his life into a reality show, but if he can find a way to use his personal drama to deepen his relationship with his audience, the result could be long-term ratings dominance.
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