Thursday, October 23, 2008

To Comment on Living

"Picket Fence" Courtesy of Bonbon Mom on Flikr.

“HALLOWEEN has gone global.”

--Michael Boodro,
Martha Stewart Living, Oct. 2008

Martha’s editor-in-chief made the most self-gratifying comments in October’s
Editor’s Letter, crediting the enterprise as being “no small part responsible for Halloween becoming an international phenomenon.”

It’s just a historically inaccurate and arrogant blip that won’t effect voters or send the country to war. However, I really want to send Martha a letter. I want to tell her she’s wrong (see Parmy Olsen’s “Halloween Declared Dead in France”) and Americanizing. Also problematically, Boodro’s idea of global only includes France, Great Britain and the U.S.

But I realize that there’s no public way to respond to Michael Boodro, or to Martha. Her magazine doesn’t publish comments, only questions. A Martha Stewart Blog exists and it is possible to publish mediated comments…but I expect Martha’s empire will quash my letter or toss it into a waste can marked “Bad Things.”

Discussions on Martha’s blog range from how-to questions to praising comments. I’ve yet to see a dissenting voice.

We expect newspapers to carry discussion forums for readers, but should a cultural agenda setting periodical hold the same standard?

Without one, MSL becomes a megaphone for selling what Veronique Vivienne calls an unchallenged “compilation of every American domestic fantasy at the end of the 20th Century.”

And the market Martha sells to is indeed wide.

“” Joan Didion reports on the overwhelming span of the Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia: Two magazines, a weekly radio show, a nationally syndicated TV show, twenty-seven books, and merchandising relations with Kmart.

If Martha Stewart wants to spread an idea—such as a phrase, an image, or a mere color palate—she doesn’t need to reach far. Her radio show can be advertised in MSL, as well as any new cookbook (i.e. November’s MSL advertises Martha Stewart’s Cooking School in the Editor’s Letter) or domestic product. It’s a pastel colored layout of vertical integration.

In 2006, Fortune 500 ranked Martha the
21st most powerful Woman in America. Beating out the First Lady and a number of political leaders, Martha Stewart can influence several million readers, listeners, and viewers. In return, she receives questions and adoring fans. If my Halloween questions get any attention, I’ll keep everyone updated.


M. Dery said...

Fun, freewheelingly all-over-the-place post, chockablock with interesting ideas. Downside: Had trouble following the gyre of your argument, at times. Interesting use of atypical points of reference, such as Didion's cultural-critical essay on The Martha. Would have liked to have seen more supporting evidence. (Sorry, I'm a stuck record on this point, and will keep repeating it until we're all humming that tune.) For example, all quotes should be live, linked to their sources. If Martha didn't singlehandedly jump-start the European craze for Halloween, give us several examples of other, equally likely suspects, with links. As it is, you simply tell your Skeptical Reader that her claim is historically inaccurate, then refer---with no link---to someone who is apparently arguing a different point, namely, that the Halloween craze is dead in France. Interesting, but unrelated to the question of who started it. But your argument that "global" should mean more than the white, Western first world is well-taken; a real zinger. Then, all of a sudden, you pull a U turn, into an argument about interactivity. Wish you'd finessed this, smoothed out the speed bump with a transitional sentence that bridges your initial argument and this interesting but unrelated one. Why not speculate about WHY MSL's site might shrink from true interactivity, WHY it might suppress truly free speech in favor of rent-a-crowd, editorially approved gush? Also, does that differ so much from the letters newspaper and magazine editors have chosen to run, historically speaking? Chomsky often talks about the Times's alleged refusal to run his letters to the editor, even when he's correcting errors of fact in articles about him. Is MSL's policy of seemingly permitting only applausive comments so different? Nitpick: I think you're talking about horizontal, not vertical, integration. Great stunt-journalism trick of posting your comment on MSL, then posting about it here. Keep us posted!

Abe Fried-Tanzer said...

This is an interesting way to come at this idea. The point that stuck out for me out of all your arguments was your mention of the lack of comments. I've found a similar problem on blogs as diverse as computer storage-themed and movie awards-themed, where comments, if even possible, are moderated and the other side are never even heard. While computer storage, movies, and Halloween aren't as dire subjects as perhaps the election or the economy, this is still something to keep an eye on. Some might even argue that dissenting voices will be stamped out immediately by supportive commentators and that to allow our views to be posted would only create a flurry of support and a stampede to concur with the original post. I'm of the mind that all comments should appear on the site. The Internet, and especially blogs, are relatively new media that are becoming remarkably interactive, and I think bloggers, magazines, and any online sources should embrace that fact by opening up the dialogue right there below the original post.

Will Marshall said...

Interesting way of approaching the lack of dissenting voices, but I’m not sure MSL is a place where people go to argue! As you suggest, agenda setting publications should provide diversity of opinion, but MSL is a corporation, not a newspaper. Its mission is to sell its products, not be the battleground for cultural discussion. It’s not politics, it’s homemaking. Is a serious forum required for the discussion of homemaking?

Undoubtedly, Martha is a cultural authority to many people but I’d suggest that the people who visit the site in the first place already hold Martha in high esteem, why else would they comment extensively on bland narrations of her book signings and some cooking tips?

Call me reckless, but I’m not too afraid of Martha’s unchecked power.

Keith Olsen said...

Hi Audrey,
I enjoyed the levity and escapism of your post and thought it was neat you chose to focus in on MSL.

When I was interning at World News over at ABC, I had to rummage through all the comments on and let me tell you, it's not the slightest. I'd say there were always more negative posts about a particular story than positive ones and far more dissenting voices. Also, if you read MSNBC, Fox, Politico and other major news outlets online, you'll find tons of frustrated readers who are looking to unload on the media.

Though like Will wrote, I dont know if MSL is the place to go for people to argue or even discuss any 'hot-button' issue...for a housemom or housedad. It's a business and primarily, it's looking to peddle Martha's stuff. Most of the readership adores and idolizes her (my sister included!).

What I found most interesting was the americanization aspect of your post. I think it would have been far more controversial and thought-provoking had you stayed on that track and talked about the media's culture craze with American holidays, especially Halloween.

Rhea Anklesaria said...

I would really have loved to read that editorial.
You make an interesting point about a handful of European nations - the ‘white world’- counting for ‘global’ in the Martha Stewart world. This may be related to the fact that her target market is most likely the white, middle class who can afford her products. Her business model intends for content to translate into merchandise.
Becoming a compilation of the ‘American domestic fantasy’ may well be on the agenda for the MSLO. The company overview for investor’s states: Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. (MSLO) is a leading provider of original "how-to" information, inspiring and engaging consumers with unique lifestyle content and beautifully designed high-quality products. It is not intended to be a forum for discussion of cultural issues. It makes no claims to be ‘fair and balanced’. It is proud to call itself an agenda setter for homemakers. Holding a Martha Stewart editorial to the same high standards as a newspaper editorial may not appropriate. It is more in the league of Oprah’s O Magazine, the self proclaimed ‘personal growth guide for the 21st century’.
Martha’s blog probably does not have many dissenters because it rarely hits a controversial issue. The benefits of such “fluff” style-and-living coverage is that it is not likely of offend. I, for one, feel no great urge to refute her claim that champagne and caviar make for a luxurious New Year -which may explain the ‘thank you for that informative blog’ comments.
You hit on another illuminating point about horizontal integration in marketing. The synergy is once again, very much intentional. Another blurb from the company overview: MSLO is comprised of four businesses: Publishing, Internet, Broadcasting and Merchandising, the combination of which enables us to cross-promote our content and products.
I think Martha Stewart’s personal influence lies beyond color palettes. Her endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president for example, could easily have influenced voting public. Your statement about spreading ideas through the seemingly innocuous MSLO, could well be compared to the powerfully integration of the Murdoch Empire. However, until her magazine begins promoting her political agenda, I wouldn’t worry as much.

Joseph Coscarelli said...

Audrey: You certainly hit on a lot in this post and among the most interesting for me was the ethnocentric view of Halloween "going global" as well as the importance of a discourse even with a cultural agenda.

That said, as I read your first couple paragraphs I was confused as to where the piece was going and ended up. While its scattered nature certainly made it fun to read, I did find myself wishing you would have honed in on a specific issue.

Zara Golden said...

Your look at Martha Stewart and her "Pastel colored layout of vertical integration" (or horizontal, so it might be) is an interesting one. Power rears it's head in unusual places, and her claim to halloween and quiet dampening of all discourse are interesting ways to demonstrate this. I would be interested to see this idea teased out a little further. I understand that Martha Stewart's empire is wide reaching, but I am still left a little unsure as to what her tight grip might imply in the grander scheme of things. What is her audience? Who's voices are and aren't being heard? What does the way we fold napkins and carve pumpkins say about the way make other decisions? I think there are interesting implications about mass psyche to be made if you are willing to extend your argument a little bit farther.

Anonymous said...

Excellent example of horizontal integration, Audrey. The Martha empire has been intriguing to me long since her trial a few years back. I would have also liked to read more of Martha's deal with SIRIUS Satellite Radio. She has her own channel stream in which she appears alongside with her daughter to freely voice her ideas. I feel that not only is the channel another outlet but a one way airwave tube.

Although editors of this sort of entertainment media often pinpoint on the positive feedback, the negative comments of the listeners and audience are probably stuck somewhere in the shrouded depths of some Martha email inbox. Sadly, I don't have concrete evidence on this. But when I was interning at a certain radio station, that's what they focused on. They asked me to copy and paste the praises and leave out all the rest. Dissonance causes controversy and too much to handle for editors.