Experts: Stewart's Downfall Is in the Details

Published March 05, 2004

| Reuters

Martha Stewart (search) made millions by being a control freak over the minutiae of the perfect dinner party and decorating the finest house, but that same trait has now landed her in jail, experts said Friday.

Stewart was found guilty Friday of lying to investigators over a suspicious stock trade and could faces years in prison. But experts said that after building a career on details, the crux of her defense — that she was foggy on the facts of her stock sale — was her undoing.

"The whole point of Martha Stewart 'Living' is that she's a master of the details," said Hanan Kolko, a partner at New York law firm Meyer Suozzi and a specialist in workplace image.

"Everything is under control if you follow her guidance whether for spring planting or a celebratory dinner," Kolko said, adding her contention that she was unclear on the facts of her case was "difficult for a jury to believe."

Long before Stewart was on trial, experts say, her reputation was set. People saw her as controlling, demanding and a perfectionist.

"Martha Stewart carries with her this persona of control, of authority, of someone who has completely got everything under her control," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"Any argument that she didn't know what was going on about anything does not seem credible," he added.

'Tissue of Lies'

"Her entire life from beginning to end is a tissue of lies," Christopher Byron (search), author of the book "Martha Inc.," said. "It is her own personal tragedy that she never realized that what she was saying about the Martha Stewart brand image was not the Martha Stewart human being."

Stewart's brand, he said, was about perfection and there was simply no room for the flaw of telling lies.

Stewart built a media empire that attracted millions of American fans. She could floret a vegetable, plant a garden and dress with style while still working a full day at the office.

Others complained she set impossible standards for modern women juggling career and family who barely had time to cook macaroni and cheese, never mind Tuna and Farfalle Puttanesca.

"There is no human being who walks this planet who measures up to the brand image of Martha Stewart," Byron said.

Over the years, Stewart became an icon in the gay community, where fans would joke, "What Would Martha Do?" — a play on the newborn Christian slogan "What Would Jesus Do?"

She has long been the butt of late night talk show ribbing for her perfectionism, and comedians have had a field day with her trial.

"Martha Stewart denied allegations that she had been given inside information to sell 4,000 shares of a stock in a biotech firm," Dennis Miller (search) joked on his HBO show. "Stewart then showed her audience how to make a festive, quick-burning yule log out of freshly shredded financial documents."

Stewart parlayed a catering business that began in her own kitchen into a media empire after a brief, unsuccessful fling as a stockbroker. Her Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. (MSO) grew into a company boasting books, magazine, home decoration products and television programs.

One of the jokes circulating while Stewart stood trial was a mock-up front cover of "Martha Stewart Living Behind Bars," a parody of her flagship magazine "Martha Stewart Living."

Stewart, set to be sentenced June 17 to what could be years in prison, has vowed to appeal the ruling.

"If she goes into jail, she's going to have to become a model citizen — do work inside the jail, really befriend the other inmates and radically alter her personal profile," Jack Myers, editor of a media industry newsletter, said of the challenge now facing Stewart.

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