When the celebrity doesn’t get much for the crime, is it still bad?

I am not cool. In many ways, in fact, I am a grumpy old man. Because of my disposition, there are many things about popular culture that escape me. For example, who thought it would be a good idea to put Colin Quinn anywhere near a camera when he doesn’t really have any comic timing whatsoever?

However, the one thing that I truly don’t understand is the current frenzy over Martha Stewart. And it is a frenzy — almost to the point of hysteria. Those who doubt this need only watch the CNBC footage of a well-dressed, middle-aged reporter desperately trying to interpret the signals sent by colleagues coming out of the courthouse on the heels of the verdict and, incidentally, getting them all wrong.

I read a fair amount of newspapers and watch a fair amount of cable news, and I’ve been hard pressed to find many people willing to defend Martha. The closest I saw was one of her relatives offering a defense to Bill O’Reilly that was about as tepid as the half-finished cup of coffee that sits on my desk until I get back from class.

There is, it seems, little sympathy for this devil. At her trial, she was found guilty of four charges. In the court of public opinion, she has been crucified with enough passion to make Mel Gibson drool.

So what, exactly, is Martha guilty of? The initial scandal was over her sale of 3,928 shares of ImClone stock a day before the FDA rejected the company’s biggest potential moneymaker, the cancer drug Erbitux. While the court eventually determined that this did not constitute insider trading, it did find her guilty on different charges.

As The Daily Show’s Web site put it: “Stewart was not charged with insider trading, but rather with lying about the transaction to protect herself from … the insider trading charges that … she wasn’t charged with. If you don’t quite understand it, just remember that the bottom line is: She’s famous and she’s guilty, and isn’t that what this is really all about?”

It is true that nothing can get a media feeding frenzy going like a celebrity in trouble. But there is more to it than that. America took pleasure in her fall, and it made me think that throngs of people had been waiting for something like this to happen for years.

It appears that by being very good at keeping things neat and tidy, Martha Stewart has inadvertently preyed on the insecurities of millions of Americans who worry that they aren’t neat and tidy enough. She’s a perfectionist, obsessed with precision, and what’s more, she demands a lot from those around her. In fact, according to people who testified at her trial, she was known to snap at underlings.

While I find it shocking that a person would dare to behave in such a manner, I hardly think it’s a reason to delight in her downfall.

Conventional wisdom holds that Martha will be made an example of; by putting away a prominent celebrity for a few years, we will send a ringing message that corporate malfeasance will not be tolerated in this country. This makes about as much sense as striking back at al-Qaida by invading Iraq. What she did was bad, but people have done and continue to do much worse.

Martha also appears to have suffered from taking very bad legal advice, although I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of her trial to really make a call on it. I just think it’s a shame that in the eyes of many, she was guilty of being Martha more than anything else. The actual charges against her were almost secondary — akin to getting Al Capone for tax evasion.

Of course, while the court of public opinion is influential, in the eyes of the law she committed a crime. That’s the bottom line, and I would never be so naive as to suggest that one could possibly influence the other.

Eliot Sherman, Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania.