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ISSUE 117 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/19/2004

Martha Martyred by the media

By Christian Huebner
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 19, 2004

The puns alone should be enough to clue anyone in to the fact that Martha Stewarts recent conviction on four felony charges is about more than, well, a conviction on four felony charges. Witticisms such as "Marthas goose is cooked," "this is not a good thing" and "various vamps on her looming locale"  a home not-so-sweet-home  have littered pop culture and media outlets since the verdict was handed down last week. America doesnt get this cheeky over your run-of-the-mill trial; not since the days following a certain white Ford Bronco have we produced such thoughtful and cathartic commentary on a conviction. In O.J.s case, it was juice, gloves, and color of skin vs. the color of money. These combinations provided the fodder for punning, and underscored the casualness that permeates conversation about the trials and tribulations of our celebrities. While such demeanor may be appropriate for fluff like one-day marriages and the soul-searching required to make Glitter, I get chills when I remember my sixth grade classmates and I arguing how O.J. should have gotten fried. Adults may not be so blunt, but Rosie ODonnell may have been on to something when she called the Stewart trial a bitch hunt. Under our grown-up tact, an eerie schizophrenia lurks in our relations, or rather lack thereof, with celebrities. Our detachment lets us name our giants jolly, green, and good one day, then enjoy the fall of Goliath the next. This pattern continues into debate after the delicious destruction, so that our conversations, like one I was privy to this week, degenerate into She got what she deserved, and Yeah, but she makes such cool stuff! Wallowing in the invented epic scales of celebrities, we dont so much lose sight of who they really are (when was the last time a star passed up a television newsmagazine cry session?), but excuse who we really are: namely, a society willing to engage some sketchy logic to justify its Salem-ian urges. In comparison with other financial scandals, Marthas infractions are miniscule. In December 2001, she sold just under 4,000 shares of ImClone stock on an inside tip from her broker and saved herself roughly $50,000 of a net worth that at one time topped $1 billion. No other investors were directly affected by her actions. A series of ill-advised legal moves, namely, not pleading to lesser charges and accepting a wrist slap fine of $200,000, led to a felony trial and, in light of said circumstances, the necessary outcome. Of course the particulars of the case are not really the point in the public mind. Its not the what, but the who that matters. In the wake of the conviction, prosecutors, jurors, analysts, and ordinary citizens were trumpeting its true significance: as an example. Example for what? Surely not for less photogenic executives at Enron, Tyco, or Worldcom  is the fear of God supposed to send them to the confessional? No, the example serves as a warning beacon for potential white-collar criminals to come. For this, we and the media mavens who satiate our tastes are willing to inflate, trump up, exaggerate  pick your verb  the scope of a rather boring offence. In light of the greater message of the day  the gross discrepancy between the current fates of bona fide public menaces like Ken Lay and Stewart  there is, shall we say, room for doubt as to whether the setting-an-example rationale holds up. In fact, the whole proposition of viewing punishment as deterrent first and direct societal protection second is subject to serious ethical concerns. No bother though. A deterrent is fiendishly difficult to disprove, and until this one is it will serve nicely as an excuse for casual martydom.

Christian Huebner is a sophomore from Lincoln, Neb. He majors in CIS: Philosophy in creative literature.

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