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Battle for Martha Waged on Internet

Martha Stewart is getting a hearing in the courtroom—and on the Internet.

The homemaking billionaire and her empire, embattled over a trading scandal, are finally the subject of something new: aggressive public relations via the Web. The sites SaveMartha.com and MarthaTalks.com are reactive and proactive efforts to keep the burners under Stewart on low.

SaveMartha.com, which launched in July 2002, continues to grow. Under the direction of John Small, author and business strategist, the site links to news stories about Stewart, posts reader mail, sells Save Martha! products and generally argues that prosecutors and media are unfairly treating Stewart.

“A group of Martha Stewart fans got together and decided the kind of negative coverage in the media of top female executives that we’ve seen recently deserves a response,” Small said in a release on the site. “Savemartha.com is a place to address this concern and to ensure that we preserve due process while this investigation goes on. Fans of Martha need a place to come and voice their opinions and concerns.”

The site also takes on Christopher Byron, author of the book Martha Inc., which NBC made into a movie starring Cybill Shepherd. Site supporters generally disparage the New York Post reporter for his book and coverage of Stewart’s activities, saying he’s capitalizing on her misfortune.

The selection of Save Martha! products is ever-widening, with clever slogans now appearing on hats, mugs, mousepads and more. One slogan reads, “If her stock sale was legit, you must acquit!” The phrase plays off another celebrity case: the O.J. Simpson trial, in which defense lawyer Johnny Cochran told jurors that if gloves in evidence didn’t fit, “you must acquit.”

Save Martha! emphasizes that the behavior of other CEOs—at Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and Adelphia—cost investors billions, whereas Stewart’s activities aren’t even comparable.

An e-mail request to interview John Small was unanswered at press time.

Stewart has taken to the Internet in her own defense at MarthaTalks.com. The domain name was created on June 2, two days before she was indicted on criminal charges.

At the site, which features a mainpage photo of Stewart with her two Chows, Stewart has posted an “open letter,” in which she defends herself and thanks her supporters.

“I simply returned a call from my stockbroker,” she wrote. “Based in large part on prior discussions with my broker about price, I authorized a sale of my remaining shares in a biotech company called ImClone. I later denied any wrongdoing in public statements and in voluntary interviews with prosecutors. The government’s attempt to criminalize these actions makes no sense to me.”

She also gathers some of the more meaningful notes that have been sent her way under the “Notes to Martha” section.

“There will always be people who want to see you fail because of your efforts, abilities, and successes,” wrote Stewart supporter Diana Strinati Baur. “But for every one of them, there is someone like me, whose hand you have held through the creative process. And we want to see you get through this and thrive again.”

Sherese Van Mieghem of Winchester, Va., wrote: “My heart goes out to you every time I read about the government’s attack on you. I personally feel it is unjustified and I resent that taxpayer dollars are being spent on such a nasty campaign.”

The site reports that it has logged more than 7 million hits and that almost 50,000 people have sent “encouraging emails.”

Stewart’s lawyers, Robert G. Morvillo and John J. Tigue, also use the site to set the record straight about some erroneous reporting.

For example, Morvillo and Tigue clarify that the government did not file criminal insider trading charges against Stewart; charges of insider trading were limited to a civil action by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Stewart was indicted June 4 on criminal charges, including securities fraud and obstruction of justice, according to Associated Press. She pleaded innocent to all charges.
The scandal surrounding Stewart stems from her dumping of shares in the biotech firm ImClone Systems, Inc. in December 2001.

ImClone’s former CEO, Sam Waksal, was sentenced June 10 to more than seven years in prison for various illegal activities, including insider trading. He was also ordered to pay more than $4 million in back taxes and fines, AP reported.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

Read EthicsDaily.com’s previous article about SaveMartha.com.