Alec Baldwin

Can't Rupert Murdoch take a joke?

Fox says it cut Alec Baldwin\'s phone-hacking joke to be \"sensitive\" -- but to the victims or the boss?


Mary Elizabeth Williams
September 19, 2011 7:20PM (UTC)

The Emmys, as Sunday night's broadcast repeatedly reminded us, is supposed to be one big industry "family reunion." In many ways, it is. Every year, the same beloved members of the pack are praised while everybody else smiles stiffly and waits around for the chance to get good and drunk. There are occasional moments of surprise, and times to honor those no longer with us. There's gentle joshing around. And somebody's feelings get hurt. Like those of a multinational conglomerate.

As part of a pretaped satirical bit that was to air during the opening of the show, Emmy-winner Alec Baldwin played a fictional network president talking on the phone -- and worked in a zinger about Rupert Murdoch listening in. But Fox, which broadcast the show this year, apparently did not find the gag about its parent company amusing. On Thursday, Baldwin tweeted that "I did a short Emmy pretape a few days ago. Now they tell me News Corp may cut the funniest line. #NewsCorphumorlessaswellascorrupt"

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That might have had something to do with the Murdoch empire's exhaustive and continuing phone hacking scandal in the U.K. – a stunning breach of privacy by News Corp that affected not just gossip-page celebrities but the families of soldiers and murder victims.

The joke -- and subsequently, the whole bit -- were scrubbed, and instead of a little phone-tapping humor to kick off the evening, viewers instead were treated to Leonard Nimoy giving a pep talk to host Jane Lynch. Baldwin confirmed Sunday via Twitter that "Fox did kill my News Corp hacking joke. Which sucks bc I think it would have made them look better. A little." He also bowed out of attending the show, though he says it wasn't an act of petulance. Instead, he opted to attend a New York gala for Tony Bennett's 85th birthday. "I skipped the Emmys… because I wanted to be here," he told Entertainment Weekly.

Fox, meanwhile, insists that it received no directive from the mothership to ax the joke. Instead, a rep says they cut it because it might be viewed as insensitive to the victims.

That may be so, but it should be noted that other arms of the Murdoch organization have made it abundantly clear that they don't really see the big deal over a little criminal activity -- and don't take kindly to any sassing back on the subject. Back in July, a "Fox and Friends" segment audaciously declared the criminal scandal a case of "piling on" and noted, with remarkable disregard for the distinction between being a victim and a perpetrator, that "Citicorp has been hacked into. Bank of America has been hacked into. American Express has been hacked into." The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, used the indignation over News Corp's abuse of power as an excuse for an editorial on how all the criticism could "perhaps injure press freedom in general."

Maybe a light joke about Murdoch eavesdropping would seem in poor taste when so many people have been grievously hurt by the actions of those within his company. Then again, when you're under the Murdoch umbrella, you've already got a longstanding reputation as the entity most likely to take offense at satire and criticism aimed at Murdoch. Or, as Baldwin wrote Sunday on Twitter, "If I were enmeshed in a scandal where I hacked phones of families of innocent crime victims purely 4 profit, I'd want that 2 go away 2."

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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