CNN recently completed a four-part series on homemaker extraordinaire Martha Stewart. The final episode reminded me of the time I debated Vanity Fair journalist Michel Wolff on CNN with host Aaron Brown in 2004.
By this time, Stewart was already a household icon of “a good thing.” An incredibly successful entrepreneur, the first female self-made billionaire, her success grew from catering to television to books to Omni Media. She was a brand with legions of fans.
And then she lied.
Stewart had stock in ImClone Systems, a company operated by Stewart’s friend Sam Waksal. ImClone appeared to be on the cusp of a groundbreaking drug that had the potential to cure cancer. Upon learning in advance that the the FDA would decline to approve the drug, Waksal immediately sold his shares in the company. When Stewart was tipped of the sale, she sold just under 4,000 shares, preventing a loss of about $45,000 for the billionaire Stewart.
The SEC filed charges against Stewart for insider trading—obtaining information not known by the public that would allow an individual to cash in or, in Stewart’s case, cash out. Facing clear and compelling evidence against her, Stewart was found guilty, not of insider trading but of lying to federal officials multiple times, a point made clear by several former officials in the documentary. Stewart’s response at the time: she’ll take the 5-month prison sentence followed by five months of home confinement.
After the incident, Stewart and her company came back stronger than ever.
The problem I had, the reason I was asked to participate in the debate, was that Stewart was heralded as the “‘Comeback Kid.” I maintained that she lied, told more lies to cover the first, never admitted her guilt, much less demonstrate an ounce of repentance. If she had just told the truth, it would have all gone away.
During the debate, Wolff—a writer who made his reputation for harsh criticism, especially celebrities—kept touting Stewart’s cooking, sheets, towels, an entire lifestyle train that she promoted in her “it’s a good thing” mantra.
My point, it’s not about sheets, towels, or cupcakes. She lied, told more lies to federal officials, and needed to face the consequences. If she had just admitted the truth, legal experts made clear, she would likely pay a fine and go back to doing what she loved. Unfortunately, her ego had other plans.
With such a broad reach, I pointed out to Wolff, Stewart could have spent five minutes on her show telling fans, “Look, I made a mistake, and I want to be an example to show you what not to do and how to strive to live up to the best we can all be.”
Wouldn’t that have been a great thing?