"Crime Wave"
LA Weekly
June 24, 2002
by John Powers


LAST WEEK ON THE DAILY SHOW, JON STEWART was chatting with 20/20 's Cynthia McFadden about the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City teen whose family is almost parodically all-American. "Do you think they're getting all this coverage because they're" -- he jokingly whispered it -- "whiteys?" McFadden looked startled (they don't joke this way over at ABC, at least not on the air), but she quickly recovered: "They're also blondies."

A couple of days later, CNN interrupted its regular news for live coverage of a press conference held by Smart's media-addicted aunt and father. After they'd finished rambling on about their desire to get Elizabeth back, and after we'd again been shown the clips of Elizabeth performing in a school production -- the networks just adore a photogenic victim -- the anchorwoman in Atlanta asked why the local cops hadn't joined the press conference. The on-scene reporter replied, "A police spokesman says there's nothing new to report." Oh.

Of course, you can't really blame CNN for milking the Smart case. Like a gangster's funeral or wildfire roaring through Arizona, the snatching of a 14-year-old from her bedroom is a classic populist story, one that's doubly seductive in what seems to be the lull between al Qaeda attacks and the War on Terror's move to Iraq. During rerun season, nothing plays better than a nice crime yarn, be it Court TV's new Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice, whose ashen host appears to have emerged from The Dead Zone , or the riveting saga of Terry Barton, the 38-year-old U.S. Forest Service worker accused of setting the disastrous Hayman, Colorado, fire because (it is rumored) she can't shake off her bum husband. Her story sounds incredibly juicy, and it's no wonder that CNN's clueless but canny Connie Chung launched her new comedy news show by interviewing Barton's brother-in-law (who, boringly, said she didn't do it).

Even as Barton was being fitted for the J. Lo role in Enough 2: The Conflagration , our most famous ice maiden, Martha Stewart, was being pilloried for the suggestion that she may have illegally engaged in "insider trading" of shares in the biotech firm ImClone. Naturally, her discomfiture has been greeted with no small glee -- The N.Y. Times dubbed the reaction "blondenfreude" -- though to be fair, the real villain is apparently ImClone's recently arrested CEO, Sam Waksal. But he's just a faceless social climber (Time ran a photo of the poor schmuck beaming alongside a sardonically grinning Mick Jagger). In contrast, Stewart has already finished her climb, transforming herself into a cultural archetype -- and lightning rod. While Erica Jong grumbles that Stewart's domestic-goddess act keeps women in their homes, The Wall Street Journal's Jennifer Grossman claims that feminists dislike Stewart because she refuses to play the victim.

Stewart clearly pays a price for being the classic Type A woman (think of American Beauty 's contempt for Annette Bening's character), but her symbolic meaning far transcends gender. Her career embodies social aspirations that were every bit as typical of the '90s economic boom as dot-com mania. Where creeps like Jack Welch merely wanted to own the world, Stewart strove to remake it in line with the pseudo-aristocratic fantasies of elegance and good taste you might expect of one who'd escaped Polish working-class roots -- fantasies shared by millions who yearn to know how to arrange flowers properly or decorate a Fourth of July cake. Martha-ism is all about the promise of worldly perfection -- she wants to make things nice -- but once she became both an über-hausfrau and a corporation, these promises took on a spooky new resonance. Topping Ralph Lauren, the woman became her own product and logo, an infomercial with legs. Frozen in her WASP-ish persona, she began to seem madder and madder -- Ana Gasteyer's SNL impression is of a sociopath whose chosen weapons are pie crusts and Christmas ornaments -- and now that she has mortifying legal woes, her carefully burnished brand is melting (her stock dropped 21 percent on Monday). Appearing on CBS's The Early Show on Tuesday, she coldly refused to discuss her problems, prompting CNN anchor Leon Harris to suggest that she'd be wiser to emulate . . . Oprah. But this misses the whole point of being Martha Stewart, which is to never, ever let it all hang out.


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