The Passion of the Martha

The Passion of the Martha: The front pages of the newspapers in Tampa and St. Pete today (where I’ve touched down for 48 hours) are nearly identical in their hysterical coverage of (and cloaked revelry in) the conviction of Martha Stewart on charges that, to the best I can understand, she lied about something federal prosecutors can’t prove she did.

If you didn’t know what this was all about and looked at the front pages of the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times today, you would think Martha Stewart ran Al Qaeda, not a media empire. It’s a scene right out of the Passion of the Christ in which the jeering crowd is celebrating the humiliation of this, why, New Jersey native, who claims to be queen of the living good.

One day, perhaps people will look back on this chapter of Martha’s life as a secular 14-stations of the crass in which we recount the specific events leading up to her conviction. At the first station, we’ll see her in her kitchen surrounded by devoted food stylists when a call comes from her stockbroker. Her journey will continue step-by-step with portrayals of an assistant who weeps as she betrays her boss. We’ll be aghast once more at how expensive the handbag carried to the courtroom costs. We’ll note the coming and goings of courtroom supporters Barbara Walters and Rosie O’Donnell. Perhaps, the lesson of this passion play will be that Martha marched through this ordeal to suffer for the sins of all rich people who abuse their success and privilege.

Okay, I’ll admit I enjoy a ceremonial bonfire of the vanities as much as the next guy, but the coverage of Martha Stewart’s conviction today can only be characterized as Gibsonesque cinematic sadism. Admittedly, Stewart invited this clichéd coverage by adhering to a marketing strategy and career path that has always hinged on her ability to create and mythologize a character called Martha Stewart who was the embodiment of social perfection. While the character (and brand) Martha Stewart has always been separate from the person Martha Stewart (like Jerry Seinfeld on the TV series and Jerry Seinfeld, the real person), many of us who perceive ourselves as informed and knowledgeable about these things (including most media pundits who have followed her) never really understood that subtle distinction between the two Marthas: the real one and the branded one.

However, her readers and customers get it. Countless books and articles have been written about the real person Martha Stewart that expose her inability to relate to people or to function in situations in which she does not posses dictatorial control. Yet such outings of the real Martha have never really had noticeable negative impact on the ability of the branded fictional character, Martha Stewart, to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenues and book sales and billions of dollars in the sale of licensed merchandise.

I’m still far from convinced that even now, when the real Martha has been publicly scourged (including on this weblog) for two years straight, that the fictional Martha won’t be easily resurrected (sorry, couldn’t resist) and continue to sell books, magazines and all that other stuff. As I’m on record too many times on this weblog of predicting that the magazine Martha Stewart Living will survive beyond the demise of Martha Stewart, I will once more serve up that crow that I may one day be forced to eat. It will live on even as the font-size of the word Martha Stewart gets smaller and small on the cover. Martha Stewart Living Magazine, no, make that Martha Stewart Living, is a great magazine and can survive the turmoil of the next few months and years – it doesn’t hurt of have nearly $170 million in cash to help tide you over. Of course, the Martha Stewart of the magazine is the fictionalized Martha, the entertaining-goddess who hangs out in kitchens and gardens and not boardrooms and trading floors.

Frankly, if I were Martha (and thank God I’m not), I would ensure the survival of my magazine by copping some prison time and then offering exclusive coverage of it in Martha Stewart Living. Monthly features on craft making and decorating sessions she organizes for the other inmates would help it fly off newsstands.

A final thought: If Martha Stewart, the person, has become the embodiment of HOW NOT to handle success and wealth and power, it is reassuring to me to know there is at least one person left who is the embodiment of HOW TO do it right. And it is with additional pride to me that she claims Nashville as the place where her career got its start.

Oprah Winfrey, whose success tracks along Martha’s in many ways (personality-based branded multimedia), has wisely (one hopes, naturally) responded to her fame and fortune in a way that appears genuinely humbled, surprised and appreciative. From all accounts (admission: I don’t read tabloids), she treats her employees (and others) with dignity and appreciation. She associates herself with positive, uplifting causes in which she participates personally and passionately. She uses her unique bully pulpit to promote good literature and coax individuals into improving their self-esteem. Because of this, we don’t mind that her annual income is greater than the GDP of most developing countries.

(I could riff a few thousand words on why we love Oprah and hate Martha, but that’s not the point.)

What was my point, anyway? Oh yes, the Martha thing.

I’ve decided that after gorging myself on today’s Martha coverage, I’m giving up schadenfreude for Lent.