Mute Martha, please

Mar 8, 2005 12:53 AM

I awoke from a nap last Thursday evening to see my television screen blaring, "Live in 3 Hours" and a series of head shots of correspondents from across the nation.

I watch television, even when awake, with the mute button on. I find it the most palatable and enjoyable way to watch the trash roll by.

This big black headline, however, sent a chill up my spine. Was it a new health crisis with the Pope? A bomb threat from North Korea? A cease fire from the insurgents in Iraq? Michael Jackson pleading guilty?

So I hit the mute button, and there was Larry King, revealing that in just under three hours there would be live coverage of the event all America was waiting for, breathlessly.

Martha Stewart was getting out of the federal clink!

So for the next 15 or 20 minutes I watched, transfixed, as Larry interviewed a succession of people who either knew Martha Stewart, had been in jail themselves, had written about Martha, had pitched her stock, or just happened to be standing in what became the most famous wooden sign in America. You know, the one proclaiming "U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Women’s Prison, Alderson, W.Va.," and announcing, "Authorized Traffic Only. Law Enforcement Officials, Commercial Vehicles and Inmate Visitors Follow Posted Instructions."

The correspondents had little to say, other that Martha herself would walk out of the gates at 12:01 a.m., drive to the airport, and get in a private plane to go home after five months of cleaning toilets and making new friends.

Then Larry started analyzing this earthshaking event, with the aid of Henry Blodget of Slate magazine, who told us he couldn’t express his own experiences but could talk about covering Martha. There was also Jean Casarez of Court TV, with her deep insight and Keith Naughton of Newsweek, who relived every painful breath that Martha drew in those awful weeks of the trial. Also there was Susan McDougal, who spent 21 months behind bars in the Whitewater mess, since someone had to pay for the fury of those battering their heads against Bill and Hilary. And, for those worrying about Martha’s solvency and financial well-being, there was Suzie Orman, explaining why Martha’s stock had zoomed and how she had made $4.5 million every day of the five months she was cleaning those toilets.

I thought of Newton Minow, watching TV in Chicago or wherever.

King missed getting him, and asking him if he still stood by his May 9, 1961, speech that made him famous. That was his inaugural speech as head of the Federal Communications Commission to the National Association of Broadcasters, when he invited the executives to "sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you. He said the execs should keep their eyes glued to that set until the station signs off.

"I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland," Minow said.

Much of the rest of Minow’s speech is forgotten, but the paragraph that followed is truer today than it was 44 years ago.

"You will see," he told the broadcasting executives, "a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom."

And then I thought of the two greatest inventions of our age: the mute botton and the off button, and the black screen that follows.