Media

Rupert Murdoch Is Watching: The Greatest Media Prank of All Time

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What do Rupert Murdoch, a former Page Six gossip columnist, a guy who works at the News Corp commissary, and the founder of College Humor have in common? They were all part of what might be the greatest media prank of all time.

So, a few months back, an infamous media story started floating around on the DL: Former Radar scribe turned New York Post Page Six gossip Neel Shah was paying for his food at the News Corp cafeteria one day when a call came down to one of the cashiers who’d worked there for a long time. He looked at Shah, and essentially told him that News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch had watched him from the bank of monitors showing the security cameras in his office. Murdoch saw that Neel was wearing “short pants,” and that he needed to go home and change them right now. The email from Shah:

I am pretty much paralyzed at the notion that Rupert is staring at me via some hidden camera. So I’m like, “Dude, tell him I’m wearing shorts cause I’m going to the gym” (the gym is on the same floor as the cafe). And so Sal says into the phone, “Mr. Murdoch, he says he’s wearing short pants (for some reason, they keep calling them “short pants” instead of shorts) cause he’s going to the gym.” So while they’re on the phone, I make a beeline to the gym, where I proceed to hang out for 25 minutes before I scope the hallway, make sure Sal is off the phone, and leave.

An hour later, I go back downstairs to the third floor, and am like, “Dude, Sal, were you serious?” And he motions to a camera and is like, “Yes. He can see everything from up there.” And then all of a sudden–I kid you not–THE PHONE RINGS AGAIN. And Sal picks up and is staring at me and goes, “Hello, Mr. Murdoch.” I am staring back at him to see if he’s joking, but he is not. He starts into the phone: “No, he is not walking around the building. He must have just left the gym. No, I do not know who told him he could wear short pants.” And Sal is just staring at me, ashen faced. And so I straight BOOKED IT for the elevator.

Now I am now back at my desk, under which I will be hiding my bare legs for the remainder of the day, not even moving to get lunch, not even moving if this building is on fire. I also just called up a publicist friend to have her messenger me over a pair of jeans. In short, Rupert Murdoch is amazing. Holy shit.

Now, if you’ve just started a job with News Corp, and the chairman is telling you to go home and change because he watches everyone, you are likely scared shitless. So, you get jeans post-haste, and change.

The story became this strange Manhattan Media Lore: It was just too insane to be true, but then again, it’s Rupert Murdoch. This wasn’t the kind of tale you heard from one person; it was so awesome, you heard it from three or four people. And enough credible people were telling the story to the point where if they didn’t question Shah’s account of the story, well, How could you?

The story was of such awesome lore, that in a post debating various gift ideas for Murdoch’s birthday back in March, this blogger (now: blithely) managed to sneak in a joke about it:

66. Pants for everyone at the New York Post. Even those gossip writers. Especially those gossip writers.

Even at Shah’s going-away party — as he’s now moved to L.A. to work on a TV show — we tried to ask him about the pants story. “Oh, man,” he replied. “I’ve got a few stories I’m holding close to my chest for the book.” As in, the eventual book he’d write about all the crazy shit he’s seen as a New York writer — everyone potentially has one — including that of his adventures with Murdoch.

Well, as it turns out, the entire thing was an elaborate prank. A brilliant, beautiful elaborate prank. Ricky Van Veen — the founder of CollegeHumor.com — posted to his personal blog last night about it. The short version: Sal — the cashier who acted as Murdoch’s Messenger — kept a phone he could have on speed-dial that would dial the phone at his register. The prank got more and more elaborate, involving Michael Bloomberg, and — really, the best part — Murdoch charging for samples of soup. Oh, also, Murdoch becoming fascinated with Shah’s facial hair:

Murdoch was also said to have had an obsession with Neel’s facial hair and wasn’t such a fan of the scruffy look currently popular with the New York twenty-something set.

The inevitable conclusion — which is a meeting between Murdoch himself (or not) and Shah — is, as one could expect at this point, hysterical. But Van Veen’s version is better, and it shouldn’t be spoiled. Go read it in full. The point here, however, is that Van Veen and Sal the Cashier didn’t just fool Shah, but they also tricked pretty much every shockingly gullible New York MediaPerson who heard the story and passed it on, too. Well done. So, so well done.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]