Last month, my friend Neel Shah left his job at the New York Post’s “Page Six” and moved to LA to write for a network sitcom. Neel’s new gig marked not only the end of his time in New York, but the end of a year-long fascination with the management style of his boss’ boss’ boss, Rupert Murdoch. Let me explain.
Last July, on a Friday afternoon, then News Corp executive Jeremy Philips and I received the following email from Neel, which was preceded by the caveat “Please do not forward, as I’d like to keep my job.”
So I show up to work today wearing a short-sleeve collared shirt, boat shoes, and dressy shorts. It’s only the second time I’ve worn shorts to work, but it’s like 90 degrees out and, quite frankly, everyone at the Post dresses like a slob, so I actually look pretty good by comparison. Anyway. I go downstairs to the third floor cafeteria to get breakfast. I’m paying for everything, and shooting the shit with Sal, the dude who runs the cafe. And we’re bullshitting about the Mets, when all of a sudden the phone rings. Sal answers, “This is the NewsCafe. Oh, hello, Mr. Murdoch, how are you?”
So obviously my ears perk up at the mention of Our Fearless Leader. Sal looks at me oddly and goes, “Mr. Murdoch would like to know why you’re wearing short pants.” So I look at Sal and am like, “Dude, what the hell are you talking about?” And he continues talking into the phone without taking his eye off me and is like, “Yes, I see, okay, I’ll ask,” and then looks at me and goes, again, “Mr. Murdoch is inquiring again as to why you are wearing short pants in the office.” And I look at Sal and am like, “I do not follow. How does he know I’m wearing shorts?” And Sal covers the receiver and says, “He is in his office but he can see you. He has a camera down here.”
At this point I’m obviously legit freaked. Keep in mind I’m standing there with a yogurt, milk, cereal, nectarine, and iced coffee in my hands. They continue talking on the phone, and Sal is going “Yes, Mr. Murdoch. Yes. Okay. I’ll ask.” And then he looks at me and says, “Mr. Murdoch would again like to know the name of your supervisor.”
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.
Our first reaction, as you’d suspect, was one of incredulity. Jeremy wrote back, “Sounds like someone is really messing with you.”
Neel disagreed with us for several reasons. For one, Sal “looked like death” while he was on the phone, stumbling, mincing his words. “He can’t be that great of an actor,” Neel said, adding that it’s also not the type of prank he would play – “he’s jokey, but not to the extent he’d orchestrate something elaborate like this.” Second, the logistics just didn’t make sense. Sal could have randomly picked up the phone and faked a conversation, but how could he have made the phone ring a second time on command?”
“It’s true,” Neel wrote us the next week. He had talked to Sal, who told him that not only was he completely serious, but Rupert had called back later to get his name (Sal covered and said he’d never seen Neel before). Sal also informed Neel that Murdoch had asked the security guards to tell anybody entering the building in shorts to go home and change.
“But here’s the kicker,” Neel added. “When I told you what happened, I left out a bit where I popped into a side conference room for a few minutes— I was gonna eat in there, at one of the tables, before I decided that the gym was a safer bet. I was in there for maybe 90 seconds, just standing around, totally dumbfounded as to what was going on and trying to figure out if this was an elaborate joke. So Sal goes, ‘He also wanted to know why you were standing in the conference room for two minutes. He thought you were playing tricks on him.’ I ask Sal, ‘He saw me go into the side conference room?’ To which Sal replies, “He sees everything down here.”
“Case closed,” concluded Neel.
As you can imagine, this whole scenario became an instant obsession of every media industry person who heard about it. Neel was even dubbed “short pants” by his summer share housemates.
I brought it up to every Murdoch associate I came in contact with for the next couple weeks – Peter Chernin, Barry Diller (my boss), to NY Post Executive Editor Jesse Angelo – and they all said the same thing: great prank, but no way it’s true.
At this point, Jeremy and I needed a definitive answer, so Jeremy went straight to the source and asked Sal. At first hesitant to talk about it, Sal finally admitted that it had all been a big practical joke. When Jeremy asked how he got the phone to ring on command, Sal told him he kept a cell phone in his pocket set to dial the wall phone behind him and would dial it when Neel walked in.
Knowing this, and not wanting to spoil Sal’s fun, Jeremy and other News Corp employees decided to join in on the prank, feeding Neel gossip like, “An assistant on our floor got sent home — twice — for wearing too short a skirt last year. But her knees were far more distracting than yours.” Jesse Angelo casually asked Neel in the hallway if he was dressing more appropriately to work. Neel asked Jesse what he meant, to which Jesse replied, “Dude, you don’t think Rupert and I talk?”
Sooner or later, Sal decided to raise the stakes. Neel sent us a frantic e-mail one afternoon: “Dude. DUDE. Evidently, Murdoch HIMSELF went over the security tape yesterday. Sal just told me, ‘He’s not letting this go. We had Bloomberg in here on Monday, and Mr. Murdoch told me, ‘What if the Mayor had seen someone wearing shorts?’ I am actually considering sending a very apologetic email to his office right now. This is insanity.”
Though this development was amusing to everyone in on the prank, as Bloomberg has been known to wear shorts around town, it also caused a bit of a scramble. Had we pushed it too far? How would Rupert react to an effusively apologetic email for something in which he had no part? Luckily Jeremy talked Neel out of sending it and Rupert’s “micromanagement” continued into the fall.
Jeremy and I would get sporadic emails like “So Murdoch evidently FIRED someone today in the cafeteria after coming out of a meeting, on the spot, after he caught the guy (someone in marketing) wearing a shirt that exposed too much of his chest. No joke. Evidently, it was the guy’s second warning.” As well as “Happened again. This time he asked Sal who said it was okay for me to have ‘hair like I am going to a disco’ (Rupert’s phrase). This time he got my last name.”
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.
There was even the occasional positive reinforcement thrown in, recapped in this dispatch from Neel, “At cafeteria. Dressed mad preppy today— khakis, boat shoes, sweater. Murdoch calls Sal and I start walking away when I hear him answer ‘Hello Mr. Murdoch.’ Sal goes, ‘Neel! Hold up!’ I turn around. ‘Mr. Murdoch says you’re dressed perfectly today, and to keep it up.’”
One time, Sal even put “Murdoch himself” on the phone, and a (presumably Australian) man asked Neel “Are you Indian or Pakistani?” When Neel replied that he was Indian, “Murdoch” said “OK” and hung up.
My favorite Neel/Rupert story came in April in the form of an e-mail with the subject “Why Rupert Murdoch is Badass.” Neel’s e-mail:
Me: “Hey, can I try the chicken-and-sausage soup before I buy it?”
Sal: “You can, but it’ll be $2.”
Me: “What? The whole soup is $3.50!”
Sal: “Well, Rupert was down here yesterday, and he saw a woman get a sample of a soup that he thought was too big.’Why would anyone buy a soup for $3.50 if they can get a half a cup ‘sample’ for free?’ he said. So he declared that we are now to charge $2 for all samples.
Me: “Huh. Well in that case I guess I’ll have the chicken-and-sausage soup.”
The man makes unilateral declarations on SOUP. I will write a book one day that will blow Michael Wolff’s out of the water.
In late June, Neel let Sal know that he was moving to LA. A few days later, Neel, with a fresh haircut, walked into the cafeteria and the phone behind Sal rang. It was Murdoch, of course. “The first I’ve gotten in about three weeks,” Neel pointed out to us while recapping. “Murdoch” tells Sal he likes Neel’s clean cut look. When Sal informs him that it’s Neel’s last week, Rupert replies “Tell him to dress up and I’ll meet him at the cafeteria at noon tomorrow. I want a photo.”
When Neel showed up the next day, Sal and his co-worker Curtis informed Neel that his attire wasn’t up to Mr. Murdoch’s standards. Neel went upstairs, put on a white dress shirt he had laying around, and came back down. Sal and Curtis could barely contain their laughter. The phone rang. Rupert was “busy” and thought Neel disrespected him by not wearing a tie. All three guys began laughing as Neel then realized he had been had.
In retrospect, Neel concedes that he certainly comes off as someone who should have known better. “But,” he adds in his defense, “It really was executed perfectly.”