Politics & Policy

Extreme Makeover

Martha returns.

It’s been Martha 24/7 for the past week, with a doctored Newsweek cover and fawning cable specials as well as the minute-by-minute, lead-every-news-show coverage of her release from a West Virginia prison and triumphant return to her Bedford Hills estate.

Yes, in a paroxysm of P.P.P. (Post-Prison Publicity) for the D.O.D (Diva of Domesticity), the media has swooned their approval over every detail of her p.r.-orchestrated homecoming. Even her style has been applauded. According to Keith Naughton of Newsweek, “[Martha] looked so hip and youthful in that poncho and jeans” as she boarded her private jet for the after-midnight trip north.

That gray-and-white poncho–which Mr. Blackwell, author of the worst-dressed list thought was “better than what a lot of designers are doing today”–was crocheted by an adoring fellow inmate whose skill with the crochet hook Martha had so admired. The dexterous “pen” pal may have possibly been assisted, as she stitched away, by Martha’s many other prison buddies, including the gardener-inmate who has no place to go after Camp Cupcake. It’s said that Martha has offered that woman a job tending the roses on one of her estates. Tina Brown, on her TV show Sunday night, thought Martha’s Lady Bountiful gesture was a wonderful thing.

Meanwhile, those embedded reporters in Katonah were trying so very hard to be creative with their coverage. Some seemed overwhelmed that her staff passed out coffee and doughnuts, whole-grain buttered bread and hot chocolate made with “whole milk.” Wow!

Other reporters told us over and over that this new Martha, who had always been so much about having or making the right thing, missed nothing “material” during her prison stay except cappuccino. But coming home to a broken cappuccino maker had taught her she only really missed “the idea of cappuccino, ” whatever that means. I’m sure Starbucks hopes that notion doesn’t catch on.

Yes, Martha, like a kitchen that has gone out of style, is getting the full renovation treatment. According to most of the media this past week, she is obviously a new, thinner, kinder, and gentler person. So what does it matter that she has still never managed to say she’s sorry?

In truth, even before her problems with the feds, Martha’s image had grown a little dusty and needed some repair work. Martha Stewart Living was facing newer competitors like Hearst’s O, The Oprah Magazine, which is even more lavish than her publication and is bolstered by Oprah’s star appeal, as well as Time Inc.’s Real Simple, which has proven you really don’t need a high-salaried perfectionist billionaire on the cover to give advice to American women on how to clean their closets.

At first, when Martha had her troubles, the company’s stance was to push her as far away as possible, downsizing her name on the magazine’s logo and dropping her calendar, which at one time was full of tantalizing tidbits about her private life like, “Sam Waksal’s birthday, bake him a lemon sponge.”

But the architect of that strategy, Sharon Patrick, a former McKinsey M.B.A. who had once been head Sea Maid at Sea World–and was, in her own way, as tempestuous a personality as Martha–left the company a couple of months ago. For years, Sharon–who had met Martha when they had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro together and was the one who had convinced her she could take her company public–had been Martha’s closest business associate and best friend.

Another former loyalist who seemed to have disappeared like an obsolete appliance during a kitchen redo is Suzanne Sobel, who was the magazine’s publisher during the good times and has soldiered on during the bad times when the company’s advertising revenue fell more than 50 percent.

In their place is Susan Lyne, a skillful Martha look-alike and now her official boss. Lyne has been performing like a “stunt double,” reassuring Wall Street that the magazine’s circulation is solid, that advertising will return and that the two fall television shows that will feature Martha will be resounding hits.

About Martha, the public remains quite divided. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken last week, 48 percent were sympathetic to her, while 50 percent were unsympathetic. Forty-one percent thought her sentence was just right; 27 percent thought it was too harsh while 31 percent thought it was too lenient. And almost two thirds, unlike Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, didn’t think Martha was singled out because she was a successful woman.

Since last week, media have been playing primarily to the “We love Martha” demographic, but let’s not forget, there were no fans waving their spatulas in welcome at her estate this weekend. That now gives media the opportunity to appeal to the Martha doubters, and there are also plenty of them. That’s why the business reporters have begun to add their commentary to the “Martha’s Back” story. Their take is, “Forget the hoopla. Her company’s in big trouble, with an inflated stock price and not much potential for growth.”

All this coverage has told us far less about Martha than about media’s endless desire to build ‘em up, tear ‘em down, and build ‘em up and tear ‘em down again. Yes, Martha Stewart had a good long weekend, but–like a kitchen renovation that is done in a hurry–there are inevitably problems. The cracks are already beginning to appear.

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.

Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...

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