It was, Rupert Murdoch said, the most humbling day of his life. Reporters and editors at his flagship tabloid, London's News of the World, the largest-circulation English-language newspaper on the planet, had been accused of hacking into thousands of cell phones to illegally obtain information for stories. They'd also been accused of bribing the police. Murdoch had already decided to shutter the 168-year-old News of the World in light of the worsening scandal. He'd aborted his bid to assume complete control of a British cable network he already owned a large part of. He'd fired trusted personnel. Now he was being forced to testify before a parliamentary panel about what he knew and when he knew it. He looked miserable and exhausted, like a once-vital bulldog who was about to get neutered even though he couldn't really get it up anymore anyway. Then an activist who calls himself Jonny Marbles hit him in the face with a pie.
To help him navigate the tricky waters of contrition this phone-hacking business had plunged him into, Murdoch had retained the crisis management experts at Edelman, the world's largest private PR firm. He was also counting on the deft maneuvering of Joel Klein, a top-tier fixer who'd previously provided legal counsel for President Clinton and the Justice Department and was now heading up the Murdoch empire's internal damage-control operations. Apology advertisements had been drafted and placed. Apology meetings with the victims of the tabloid's criminally zealous reporters had been choreographed. A lot of money was being spent to make Murdoch and his minions look chastened, redeemable — but with how much effect?
And then came Jonny Marbles, offering up his services not just for free, but at considerable expense to himself. (He was immediately arrested after his actions and now faces assault charges.)
If there's one thing 40-plus years of politically inspired pie-throwing has taught us, it's that organizations like Edelman should add it to their repertoire immediately. Even to his most ardent admirers, Rupert Murdoch comes off as a scheming predatory billionaire — that's what they love about him — but in the wake of Marbles' assault, he looked confused, frightened, human. Pie-throwing may ultimately be a relatively harmless act, but it's designed to seem at least temporarily threatening. An unknown operator rushes the victim with unknown intent. The moment before a pie-throwing is as chaotic and suspenseful as the moment before an assassination attempt. Essentially, it's a form of politically correct terrorism, a punch masquerading as a punchline.
Understanding this, the public tends to empathize with the victim, even if its reservoir of sympathy for him or her had been previously nonexistent. Marbles' intent was to humiliate and punish Murdoch, but even he appeared to at least partially comprehend the humanizing — and thus sympathetic — light his act cast upon his victim. "Maybe what I was trying to do was remind everyone … that [Murdoch] is not all powerful, he's not Sauron or Beelzebub, just a human being, like the rest of us."
But Marbles' gift to the aging mogul didn't stop there. Pie-throwing as a political gesture is emphatically totalitarian. "Enough with discourse!" it says. "Enough with due process!" Splat! But despite its despotic nature, pie-throwing invariably gets deployed in the name of democracy or diversity — and Marbles took this irony to new heights when choosing Murdoch as his target. Murdoch, after all, is routinely demonized for mainstreaming tabloid sensationalism, dumbing down public discourse. He presides over a cable network that offers up partisan cheerleaders like Sean Hannity under the banner of news and presents deceptively edited video clips and doctored photos as fair and balanced reporting.
In Marbles' estimation, Murdoch's media empire is "built on deceit and bile" and "trades vitriol for debate." But even in his most craven moments of conspiratainment, did melodramatic blackboard scribbler Glenn Beck ever base an argument on anything as insubstantive as a platter of shaving cream? (Sadly, Marbles didn't even have the journalistic integrity to assault Murdoch with a genuine pie. His was merely a staged baked good.) Did chest-thumping spin-head Bill O'Reilly ever end an interview by smashing a fake pie in a guest's face?
But don't saddle Murdoch with their shortcomings. Vividly visual, hyperbolically confrontational, context-free, emphasizing spectacle over substance, geared for the shortest attention spans — pie-throwing is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the tabloid values Murdoch has imparted on the world. Momentarily shaken by Marbles' unexpected homage, already unsure of himself on what he earlier described as the most humbling day of his life, with his reputation hemorrhaging before his eyes, Murdoch must have experienced a sudden uplift, a realization that even his most passionate critics had thoroughly absorbed his values. The clumps of pie running down Murdoch's craggy old face would have tasted sweeter had Marbles used coconut cream filling instead of, say, Gillette Foamy, no doubt, but they still must have tasted like victory.
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