Martha Stewart, who... personified the strong aspirational aspects of our culture, has now been found to also represent one of the dark – and out-of-control – aspects of our culture: lying. Musings on Martha

Despite 24/7 prattling, this is a very simple story, folks. In the course of an insider trading investigation, the SEC and FBI questioned Martha Stewart and Peter Bacanovic, her stock broker, over Stewart’s glaringly well-timed sale of Imclone stock. Stewart and Bacanovic conspired to lie to government investigators. Stewart lied to the investigators. Bacanovic lied to the investigators. Lying to government investigators is a free-standing felony, regardless of the presence or absence of any other criminal activity, period. To twelve jurors who seemed remarkably serious and diligent about their duty, the sum of the evidence was beyond a reasonable doubt. Stewart and Bacanovic were convicted. That’s it; that’s the story. All else is public navel gazing. Some of us are inzies and some are outzies; most of us have the dignity not to display either.

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Those who argue that Martha Stewart should not have been prosecuted for "lying about wrongdoing she did not commit" are speaking prematurely, and most of them know that. Martha Stewart still faces civil charges for breaking SEC rules regarding insider trading. The burden of proof for the civil case is much less for the government than it would have been for the criminal case, and splitting of the charges only indicates a shrewd government strategy. Whether the civil case will go forward, in light of the significant criminal convictions, is up to government prosecutors.

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Martha Stewart, who for decades, in her work and in her life, personified the strong aspirational aspects of our culture, has now been found to also represent one of the dark – and out-of-control – aspects of our culture: lying.

Her conviction may well, for a time, send a signal that lying to government investigators and conspiracies to cover up wrongdoing will result in serious consequences, for those who are caught. That is a narrow signal in a narrow context to a narrow segment of our society.

What we need is a broader, stronger signal to every man, woman and child of us: Lying by anyone to anyone at any time for any reason is equally wrong and should be equally condemned – and punished. Situational ethics, however smartly argued, is a construct for excusing that which cannot be excused. Facts are facts, truth is truth, and any diminution of either is to degrade society’s ability to discern.

As author Michael Crichton has said in a widely circulated speech, "The greatest challenge facing mankind is the challenge of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda. Perceiving the truth has always been a challenge to mankind, but in the information age (or as I think of it, the disinformation age) it takes on a special urgency and importance."

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Don’t it just burn your grits when advocates for any cause jump upon any event for the sole and transparent purpose of furthering their specific cause. Such it is with those who are yelping that Martha was brought down because she was a successful woman. We’re sorry, but being convicted in a court presided over by a female judge and by a jury of which two-thirds were women just doesn’t square with that argument.

Oh no, some say, we meant the government went after her because she was a successful woman. That assumes facts not in evidence. Reports that the government offered a plea bargain that would have required pleading to only one charge and probation is hardly the demeanor of a vindictive government. Had the plea bargain been accepted by Stewart, others would have screamed unfair leniency.

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Martha Stewart’s Hermes bag, fur scarf and orchestrated courtroom support by celebrities, including the polarizing Rosie O’Donnell, may have had no more tangible effect on the verdict than a defense perceived to be weak and off-putting. But symbols are more often the equivalent of substance to perceptions than most people understand. Martha Stewart’s career embodied that understanding; her defense ignored it.

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Hubris: It’s not a good thing.

March 9, 2004
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