When a Hit Is Amiss

The man who threw a “pie” at Rupert Murdoch was able to get into the hearing room because he wasn’t subjected to a pie detector.

Eventually, the pieman’s aims became clear, but his aim was off. Although Brian Williams didn’t attend the Parliamentary hearing in London on July 19, his presentation that night was striking. At the top of his newscast, the NBC anchor told his “Nightly News” audience:

“On the broadcast tonight, the most humble day of Rupert Murdoch’s life, he says. But then he went on to say he does not accept blame for the hacking scandal. Then he was hit by a pie in the face. Then his wife struck the attacker….”

Williams went on to say:

“Both Murdochs tried to stay above the fray, then the fray came to them in the form of a guy with a cream pie aimed right at the face of the patriarch. It was that kind of day. It’s been that kind of scandal.” And it’s that kind of script. In his opening, Williams set a possible record by using then three times in successive sentences—starting two straight sentences with then.

Even though Williams said Murdoch was “hit by a pie in the face” [better: hit in the face by a pie], two NBC siblings, CNBC.com and MSNBC, didn’t say the protester hit Murdoch in the face. Just after 6:30 p.m. ET, about the same time Williams began to talk, the guest host on MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton, said, “The man tried to pie Murdoch but wasn’t successful….” Tried.

About 90 minutes before Williams went on the air, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “A man tried to hit him [Murdoch] with a plate full of shaving cream.” Tried. At 7:02 p.m., ET, MSNBC.com posted an article saying a man tried to attack Murdoch. At 7:22 p.m., MSNBC posted an article that said Mrs. Murdoch “leaped forward to smack a protester from smashing a pie into her husband’s face.” Huh? Smack someone from smashing? And an hour after Williams’s “Nightly News,” an MSNBC anchor on Lawrence O’Donnell show said the protester “attempted to smash Rupert Murdoch in the face with his pie.”

Another member of the NBC family, CNBC.com, at 1:49 p.m., ET, posted an article by a senior editor that said the protester “attempted to strike him [Murdoch] with a pie plate filled with foam.

On the next day’s “Today” show, shortly after 7 a.m., ET, Ann Curry said the protester “tried to hit him in the face with a pie.”

What about the network newscasts that compete with Williams’s? On the “CBS Evening News,” Bob Schieffer said “someone hit him with a cream pie.” But nothing about Murdoch’s being hit in the face.

On ABC’s “World News,” the anchor, Diane Sawyer, said, “a heckler with a pie tried to attack her husband.” Tried. An ABC correspondent in London said, “…it was so fast it was hard to see what happened.” Later that night, though, on ABC’s “Nightline,” a correspondent (David Wright) said a “shaving cream pie” had been “stuffed in [Murdoch’s] face.”

On PBS’s NewsHour, a correspondent said a man “rushed at Murdoch with what appeared to be a plate of white shaving cream.”

The Associated Press didn’t say Murdoch was hit in the face. All day, in updates, the AP used “tried” or “attempted.” The twin byline included the AP’s London bureau chief. A half hour before Brian Williams went on the air, the AP moved a short version of the Murdoch story in “AP News in Brief” at 5:58 p.m., ET. The story said, “He stayed seated when a prankster tried to throw a foam pie, splattering his suit jacket….”

Bloomberg said Murdoch was hit in the face. The news service moved an article that said, “A man standing behind Murdoch came from his left and leant into him and pushed a plate of the substance into his face, according to a Bloomberg reporter in the room.”

CNN, too, said Murdoch had been hit in the face. One of CNN’s producers in London, Jonathan Wald, wrote at cnn.com: “He [the protester] said, ‘You’re a naughty billionaire,’ plunging a plate with some gunk in it firmly in Murdoch’s face.” Wald also said Murdoch was hit “squarely in the face.”

Just after 11 p.m., ET, a substitute anchor, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, told CNN viewers, “Take one media mogul, one pie in the face, a right hook and a stiff upper lip, and you have pretty much summed up the day in Britain’s Parliament and Rupert Murdoch’s phone-hacking scandal….” Some summing up.

Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN’s weekly program monitoring the media, “Reliable Sources,” wrote at the website of The Daily Beast at 12:53 p.m., ET, “The sober hearing got a jolt when a protester tried to throw a pie at the senior Murdoch….” Kurtz is the Washington bureau chief of Daily Beast and Newsweek.

How about the BBC? Right after the attack, the British broadcaster said Murdoch “was apparently hit in the face with a plate of shaving foam….” But at its website later, the BBC said, “[A] man tried to throw a foam pie at Rupert Murdoch.” But no mention of hitting Murdoch in the face with a pie. At 6:16 p.m., ET, Reuters said the protester tried to hit Murdoch but didn’t say Murdoch was hit in the face.

All three U.S. national newspapers–the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today–said the protester had tried to hit Murdoch in the face.

A Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, also said the protester had tried to hit Murdoch with the “pie.” Canadian Press, a national news agency, and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), a national public broadcaster, also said tried.

The newsweeklies—Time, Newsweek and The Economist—ran stories about the attack on Murdoch, but none said the “pie” had hit him in the face.

The British newspaper The Guardian, credited with breaking the phone-hacking story, said the protester had “tried” to throw a plate of white foam into Murdoch’s face. The Financial Times blog also said “tried.” A Times of London blog said “attempted.” The Telegraph’s blog said, around noon, ET, “The man slapped the pie on to Rupert Murdoch’s shoulder; Wendy [Murdoch] then grabbed it from him and pushed it into the assailant’s face.”

Except for CNN, Bloomberg and ABC’s David Wright, the news outlets cited here did not say the attacker hit Murdoch in the face with a pie. But if you say the “pie” hit him in the face, you have a much more dramatic story.

“The majority is always wrong,” Ibsen said. But this majority’s near-unanimity and reputation have me sold. No wonder Brian Williams’s presentation about Murdoch–“hit by a pie in the face”–stands out. But, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t stand up.

© Mervin Block 2011