Martha's Rise, Fall: What Does It Mean?

Why do so many people take delight in the legal woes of Martha Stewart — lifestyle guru, business empress, and now, fallen icon. Ted Koppel and guests Tina Brown, Jeffrey Toobin and Naomi Wolf discuss Stewart's rise and fall. Following is a transcript of that discussion.


TED KOPPEL: You may as well get us started, Naomi. Why is there such visceral pleasure among so many people at the spectacle of what's happening?

NAOMI WOLF: Well, you really said it, Ted. Visceral pleasure. There's a sense of almost titillation and glee as the media jumps on this spectacle of this woman going down, potentially. The reason it's so resonant is that, first, she broached the top tier of money, acquisition. And women are judged differently when it comes to getting rich. If you look at Leona Helmsley and that story, if you look at Hillary Clinton and her stock trading scandal, you'll see that when Martha Stewart became one of the wealthiest people, not just women in America, she really broke that glass ceiling in a way that makes the top tier tremble, 'cause there are only five percent women up in that, in that tier.

TED KOPPEL: So, this is a class thing in your view?

NAOMI WOLF: Well, first, it's just about wealth, which in a capitalist democracy is power. But now we come to the class piece. She also got rich by breaking the class code. She became almost a class trader. Martha Kostyra started out as a working class young women. And we don't like to acknowledge, Ted, in America that there is a class system, but there is. And what she did was she took the code of upper middle class, upper class professional symbols and she said, "you know what, I'm going to crack the code for you. I'm going to teach you what the insiders know about what the right floor looks like, what the right clothing looks like, so that you won't be excluded anymore."

TED KOPPEL: Let me just move on to some of our other guests. Tina, -you buy the class envy argument?

TINA BROWN: Well, I think Martha Stewart really does excite a really toxic kind of cocktail of both guilt and envy at the same time. You know, she makes women feel guilty that they're not as perfect as she. And -she makes men feel somehow threatened and guilty that they're not making the money that she's making. And vice versa. And I think that's a very bad combination. I think there is a class element in it, yes, there's a certain amount of feeling that she's betrayed her class by getting rich. But I actually also think it's also about the blond phenomenon. You know, I think this, this culture really needs to make, sort of demonize, in a sense, somebody every two minutes. And I think that, you know, there is a glamour element. I mean, there is some of the most superficial reasons why people are excited by Martha's suit.

TED KOPPEL: So, a brunette rinse would take care of everything for her?

TINA BROWN: She could have tried that solution a few years ago. But she might also not be the icon she is if she had.

TED KOPPEL: Jeffrey, let's talk about the reality of the case here. I was a little bit stunned that one of the things the government is saying in its case here is, we're going after Martha Stewart on one level precisely because it is Martha Stewart and people have to understand that no one is going to be immune when they break the law. Is this setting an example? What are they doing here?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Well, that is a part of Federal law enforcement. One of the things Federal prosecutors do, one of the joys, I guess, if that's the right word, of being a Federal prosecutor is, you have a lot of bad guys out there to choose from. And you pick the ones who are the worst, but you also pick the ones who are going to draw some attention and tell everybody else out there that you can't do insider trading. You can't lie to the FBI. And you pick cases that will draw attention. And no one will draw attention like Martha Stewart will.

TED KOPPEL: Why has it taken a year and a half?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Because this case is not easy. I mean, remember, this was an insider trading investigation. And one thing you will notice, Martha Stewart was not charged with was insider trading. This is an obstruction of justice case with a very peculiar securities fraud angle where she is accused of lying to the public by saying she was innocent, thereby artificially propping up her stock price. I've never seen a criminal charge like that before. And one that's sure to be challenged. But this is not the crime of the century. This is a -rather modest collection of charges that are very bad for Martha Stewart, but this is not what the investigation began to find.

TED KOPPEL: If you were ...

TINA BROWN: I do think there's something very distasteful about seeing the way that she has very, very slowly been turned and grilled on this spit of publicity. And I do think there is something more that could have been done to accelerate, at any rate, the process or deal with it in some more finite way faster, because this woman has really been tortured in the public eye.

TED KOPPEL: And why could you think that has been? I mean, why would the, why would Federal prosecutors be interested in doing that to her?

TINA BROWN: Well, I fear it's because there is a titillation aspect of drawing attention to the crime, as Jeffrey says. I mean, that you do get to — prosecute a crime that does get maximum attention and does, in a sense, make an example of somebody. I agree that the case is extremely complicated, but it seems to me that this has been an unseemly spectacle. And I don't know what Jeffrey feels about that, whether or not there is anything that could have been done to make this a more, you know, a less distressing spectacle.

TED KOPPEL: As they used to say in the old Hollywood movies, "this just in." Apparently, a story has just moved on the wires saying that she has stepped down as CEO and chairman of her company. So I guess the question becomes, and Tina, I'll put it to you first, can Martha Stewart Enterprises exist without Martha Stewart at the head of the company?

TINA BROWN: This is a very sad day if she has just stepped down, I think. 'Cause this woman really built her company with talent and energy and commitment. I think she's crucial to the success of that company, as a matter of fact. She is enormously gifted. In fact, you could argue that, you know, Martha herself has always been a fairly controversial woman and a rather mixed bag in terms of whether people like her personally. But really, her success has been about the fact that she absolutely knows what she's doing and that her company is brilliantly run. And the products she puts out are actually superbly good. In a sense, they win in spite of her personality.

TED KOPPEL: That's, well, let me put the same question to you, then, Naomi Wolf. Can the corporation continue to exist, I mean, frankly, my towels aren't going to be any different. The linens aren't going to be any different. Whatever the accoutrements are that she sells, the magazine isn't gonna be any different. The television show, obviously, can't get along very well without her, but why can't the rest of the enterprise?

NAOMI WOLF: Yeah, I think it's perfectly sound. But I think what's even more interesting is, as Tina said, the kind of, almost witch hunt-like quality of making her pay so visibly. I kept thinking, do we know the names of the guys at the head of the Enron scandal, you know, a few months after the scandal?

TED KOPPEL: No, but we didn't, we didn't know their names before, either. I mean, the fact of the matter is, you don't make someone famous overnight. She was famous before she became a target.

NAOMI WOLF: Right. But I do think Tina touched on something really crucial, Ted, which is that I do think some of the animus isn't coming from the people at the bottom of the heap who are still gonna buy her towels and sheets 'cause, as Tina said, they're well made and they're low cost. They're not the ones who are wanting to kill her. The ones who are wanting to destroy this icon are the ones who have to understand that she is a brilliant businesswoman, that she did "synergy" better than the big guys were doing synergy before anyone knew what synergy was, as you put it. And it's a kind of dissection of a kind of brilliant female business mind and business model. And one more thing she did that's taboo, by the way, is she took women's work seriously. She took seriously the traditions of caring about the home, making beautiful things, holding things together in an increasingly mechanized, industrialized environment. And she said, "this matters, I'm going to care about it." And she found a huge market of people who cared about it by taking women seriously. So I think there is so much schadenfreude there. I don't think it has anything to do with the strength of the company.

TED KOPPEL: Jeffrey, I have to assume that they could have done this a much easier way. In other words, if they had offered her some kind of a deal. If they had said, "pay the 45 grand, pay a fine on top of that," whatever it might be. They didn't have to be this rough, did they?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: They didn't have to be, and there were long, long plea negotiations which simply failed. And when I interviewed Martha, you know, that was one of the things we talked about. You know, why don't you cut a deal, why don't you put this behind you? And, you know, what she said to me was, "I'm not cutting a deal because I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't insider trade and I didn't obstruct justice." Now, I've heard guilty people deny things before, but you know, it's very easy for us to sit here and say, "God, what a fool. Why didn't she just cut a deal?" But sometimes people don't cut deals, and maybe this is one of these cases, because they're simply not guilty and they're not gonna admit to something they didn't do.

TED KOPPEL: Tina, do you know her personally?

TINA BROWN: I do, yes, yes.

TED KOPPEL: Is she the kind of person, as many of us are, who are just so damn stubborn and say, "look, I'm not going to cut a deal, why do I have to cut a deal?"

TINA BROWN: No, I think she's a perfectionist about herself. And I think that she holds herself to very high standards. And her whole company, in a sense, is about commodifying high standards. So, the question here is, is this about Martha herself believing that she didn't do this, or Martha feeling that it's just lethal for her to, in a sense, accept that she did in fact stumble? So, I don't know. I mean, I'd like to think that -this will come out somehow better for her because I don't think what she did is very terrible. I think the cover-up has been very unfortunate.

TED KOPPEL: So, theoretically, better than to go through the case, go through the trial, hopefully to be found not guilty at the end of it and then to be able to say, not a smudge on my, on my reputation?

TINA BROWN: Well, I think that at the end of it, what she must have learned from this is there's so much vengeance out there for any kind of success. In a way, she should have perhaps shown a little earlier, a little bit more, you know, willingness to kind of accept humility a bit. You know, she was a little bit, shall we say, Olympian in the last few years.

TED KOPPEL: We're just about out of time. But let me, in place of a question, throw a name out and just get the visceral reaction from each of you. Tina, you first. Leona Helmsley.

TINA BROWN: The queen of mean.

TED KOPPEL: Yeah, but I mean, in this context.

TINA BROWN: I think that she really is the Wicked Witch of the West. And I think she has been demonized, too. But I think she's a far more severe case of bad news.

TED KOPPEL: Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: There's no, there's no compensating factor to Leona Helmsley. Martha Stewart created jobs, created this enormous business. And also, you know, for all that a lot of people dislike her, and we've discussed it, millions of people love this woman and watch her television show everyday and really care about her. So -there's another side of the ledger to Martha Stewart which there really isn't, as far as I can tell, about Leona Helmsley.

TED KOPPEL: And it's probably appropriate to end on at least the one rare positive note here. So, thank you all very much. Tina Brown, Jeffrey Toobin, Naomi Wolf. Good of you to join us.