The Letterman Case: Extortion or Blackmail?
by Jamison Koehler on October 23, 2009
David Letterman’s recent revelation that he had been having affairs with female members of his staff and his reason for making the revelation – threats by a CBS producer to reveal the indiscretions — bring attention to what I believe are two interesting and often misunderstood crimes: extortion and blackmail. While all the news reports I have seen use the term “extortion,” the alleged offense could just as easily fall into the category of blackmail. (See Washington Post article for sample of coverage.)
While I am not familiar with the laws in either New York or Connecticut or wherever else a potential criminal case could be brought and while the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are in fact several distinctions.
Extortion is an interesting crime in that it combines elements from two other crimes: theft and assault. Like theft, extortion involves the wrongful taking of another person’s property. Like assault, it requires force or the threat of force.
There is another crime which also combines elements from both theft and assault: robbery. The difference between extortion and robbery is that robbery requires a threat of immediate force. Extortion threatens future harm, either physical or economic.
If extortion is one step removed from robbery, then blackmail is two steps removed. It too involves the wrongful taking of another person’s property. And it too requires a threat. The threat in blackmail, however, is not of force of violence, either immediate or in the future. Instead, blackmail threatens reputation, disgrace, or embarrassment.
So what is the proper term for the CBS producer’s behavior in the Letterman case? At first glance, a demand for $2 million to forebear writing a screenplay about Letterman’s indiscretions sounds a lot more like blackmail than extortion. The producer was not threatening force or violence against Letterman; he was threatening to sully Letterman’s marriage and reputation.
At the same time, by common law and at least still in some jurisdictions, extortion also includes an economic component to it. The threat can be one of economic, as well as physical, injury. In this case, assuming that disclosure of the affairs could hurt the Letterman’s “brand,” so to speak, then the producer’s demand can properly be considered one of threatening economic injury. The offense is thus brought within the category of extortion.
Between extortion and blackmail, extortion generally carries the stiffer penalties. What does this say about our society when our laws consider it a greater offense to harm someone’s economic interests than his or her reputation? I guess there is not much to be said for the old maxim that a person’s reputation is worth more than anything money could ever buy.