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Scandals Hit Home: She's Customer of MCI, Adelphia, Martha Stewart

Culture: As corporate controversies mount, some fear that weary consumers will grow to accept corruption.

July 05, 2002|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marty Huyette's home looks much like the others on her quiet street in Redondo Beach.

But it is a House of Scandal.

Huyette's MCI long-distance telephone service is from WorldCom Inc.; her cable TV is from Adelphia Communications Corp.; and she has a subscription to Martha Stewart Living magazine.

All three are embroiled in high-profile corporate controversies.

"There is no way to avoid it," Huyette said. "Here I am in my lovely little house, and my providers just happen to be [in trouble]. I don't have much choice in the matter."

That may be the case for the utilities, but what about Stewart, head of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.?

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," she said.

The nearest most people used to get to corporate scandal was a Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon novel. Now it's as close as the phone or TV in the living room.

"One suddenly finds that these corporate scandals are a lot more interesting when they concern companies we have an intimate relationship to," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"If you have ever made one of Martha Stewart's centerpieces out of grapevines, it's a whole lot more relevant to your life than Enron Corp. Martha brings a celebrity personality to corporate scandals in a way Kenneth L. Lay never could. He can't make a good vegetarian meatloaf."

Huyette is a triple corporate scandal threat, but there are millions who are touched by at least one of the companies. WorldCom has about 20 million customers, Adelphia has about 5.7 million and Martha Stewart Living goes out monthly to 2.4 million subscribers.

That's a lot of intimacy with scandal.

Huyette said she should have known from her last MCI bill that parent company WorldCom was making desperate moves.

A former movie set decorator who now designs interiors for retailers ranging from mall carts to entire stores, Huyette reads the fine-print inserts that come stuffed inside bill envelopes.

"I have a 5-cent-a-minute plan, but in my June bill there was a line that said my Sunday rate was going to 20 cents."

She called and threatened to switch services. It worked--MCI found her a new plan that made her happy.

The scandal didn't enter into it.

"You get kind of vested in these companies," Thompson said. "You can go from cable to satellite, but it's a hassle. You can switch long-distance companies, but maybe you get airline mileage from them.

"You end up thinking that you prefer a little corruptive service."

That's the danger, said University of Chicago sociologist Ari Adut, who specializes in ongoing French political scandals.

"People get numb to scandal. Some got so used to it in France they think, 'Why vote?' " Adut said.

"Here the danger is that there will be such a high expectation of corporate corruption, foreign investors will stop investing in America. We would all feel the effects."

As bad as the news has been, that doomsday scenario still seems far off. Especially on a pleasant afternoon in Redondo Beach, sitting under a graceful pepper tree behind the house of scandal. Huyette snaps off a low branch.

"Martha uses the berries from this kind of tree in her wreathes," she said.

She is an unabashed fan of Stewart and hopes the magazine will not be harmed by the scandal. "Gosh, I just subscribed for two more years," she said. "It would not work without her. She is the empire, like Oprah."

Huyette, who herself is an entrepreneur, dreams of a time when she can simplify her life and move far from contact with most suspect corporations.

"At night I turn out all the lights before I got to bed, and I can still see all these little buttons of light on the equipment--the fax, computer, printer, scanner, phone, VCR, battery charger. And sometimes I just laugh at how ridiculous it is.

"I think that maybe I could move to New Mexico. Live simply. No computer, no television, maybe even no phone except for emergencies."

No Martha?

Huyette thought for a moment.

"Oh, I would probably still get it. I'm addicted to make-overs."

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