A Sport and a Pastime

Oh! they're too beautiful to live, much too beautiful!

—Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

Powerful people are suffering horribly. They're strewn across the landscape, writhing in the fetal position. It's impossible to go anywhere in the media these days without stumbling over them.

On the front of USA Today's Money section this week was a story about the former Enron honchos who, in all likelihood, are about to be roasted by federal prosecutors. To highlight this excellent coming attraction, the paper pulled a quote from the story and ran it in a bigger font just over the text: "Government is going to turn up the heat." Above the fold, in a strip, were mug shots of three top Enron figures—Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, and Kenneth Lay—each wearing an expression somewhere between haunted and terrified. Skilling was shown biting his lower lip.

At the top of The Washington Post's front page a few days earlier there was a large photo from the recent Catholic bishops' meeting in Dallas. This was the event where a phalanx of private security guards protected the once-revered prelates. Captured by Rick Wilking of Reuters, the amazing image (which also ran on the front of The New York Times) showed Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., sitting against a royal-purple backdrop. Eyes closed, head tilted up, he was frowning in what seemed to be a mix of shock and revulsion. It looked as if he were trying to disappear. Next to him a middle-aged man in a business suit leaned forward pensively, also apparently in pain. The photo read like a great painting, and you almost didn't need the caption to figure out what was going on: The man in the suit had been sexually abused by a priest; he and the bishop were listening as yet another victim told yet another horror story to the hushed conference.

Yes, the powerful are tumbling all around us, as they haven't tumbled for a long time. This week's Watergate anniversary was a reminder of just how long it's been since major authority figures morphed into notorious scoundrels on an almost daily basis. After a couple of decades in which everyone who was riding high pretty much stayed there—and even an impeached president figured out how to stay in power—we are once again seeing idols and icons smashed before our eyes.

For the public, this is apparently kind of scary. Reuters sent out a wire story this week headlined, "Is Scandal, Fear Inspiring Malaise Among Americans?" According to one pollster quoted in the story, all the appalling news about the Catholic Church, government intelligence agencies, corporations, accountants, and brokers has turned us into "an extremely jittery nation." To some, it feels like the 1970s all over again.

But among journalists, these stories have the opposite effect. We live to see proud people brought down, exposed for all their hideous weaknesses and failures. It's a sick pastime and quite ruthless. But it's our way of rooting out corruption, and generally speaking, it works. It's working right now, which is why, for journalists, it's a glorious time to be alive.

Our newest and most promising target is an alarmingly successful woman we've been circling for years, Martha Stewart. From the beginning, something about old Martha got under journalists' skin. She was too talented, too attractive, too confident, too rich—in short, just too perfect for our taste. Perfect people make everyone feel bad. And when journalists feel bad, they do something about it. There were any number of rumors, and some hard evidence, that Martha Stewart wasn't nearly as flawless as she wanted us to believe, that she might even be a secret bad person. Over the years, this became the encoded message of much of the journalism about her and her business empire. When elite journalists discussed her success, they tended to do so in a backhanded way, as a suspicious kind of success, about which one should have principled doubts and concerns.

This year a book offering a nice yeasty taste of the underside of Martha's world appeared. Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, by journalist Christopher M. Byron, gave rise to a lot of news stories about Stewart's personal life, including one about her relationship with Sam Waksal, the former CEO of drug manufacturer ImClone Systems. Last week, Waksal was arrested on insider-trading charges, and now Stewart herself is under investigation over some ImClone shares she sold in late December, shortly before the company announced bad news about one of its drugs.

Journalists don't know yet if Stewart did anything illegal, but for the moment we're beside ourselves at the prospect of her fall. The New York papers are particularly delirious. Both the New York Post and the New York Daily News fronted Stewart's woes this week, exhorting her to "come clean." If The New York Times has been more restrained in tone, it's been no less enthusiastic, running detailed stories on the high-society, high-finance crowd in which Stewart moves.

But the crucial fact about the Martha Stewart story, and all the other stories in this invigorating new wave of Schadenfreude, is that they have appeal far beyond the New York-Washington axis. The newsweeklies, the supermarket tabloids, and the television magazine shows are all feasting on Enron, on the corrupt priests, and now on Martha Stewart. And so is the public at large. "What did Martha Stewart know? And when did she know it?" asked the lead sentence of Time magazine's story this week. She may not be Watergate, but she'll do.