No Comment — August 23, 2010, 2:31 pm

How Bill O’Reilly Got a Critic Fired

In 2008, Barry Nolan, then the host of a Boston-area cable television show, criticized the New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for its decision to grant the 2008 Governor’s Award to Bill O’Reilly, the controversial Fox News talk-show host. Nolan went to the awards dinner to hand out fliers of quotations culled from O’Reilly’s sexual harassment lawsuit, quotations which Nolan felt would demonstrate why O’Reilly was not worthy of the award. When the award ceremony began, Nolan and his son quietly left—indeed, they were hardly the only people in the audience to do so. Within forty-eight hours, Nolan learned that his employer, Comcast, was firing him.

Many an employee has been fired for saying too much, too loudly, to the wrong people, at the wrong time. Still, some in Boston’s media community remained suspicious about Nolan’s termination. “There was something unseemly about a small player like Nolan being forced out by a giant like Comcast,” says Dan Kennedy, a former Boston Phoenix media critic and an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “It made me wonder if they were afraid O’Reilly would go running to Rupert Murdoch. But what was Murdoch going to do? Take American Idol off Comcast?”

An investigation by Columbia Journalism Review’s Terry Ann Knopf establishes that the suspicions about Nolan’s firing were completely reasonable. Indeed, it turns out that Nolan was the target of a vendetta orchestrated by none other than Bill O’Reilly.

On May 12, 2008—two days after the Emmys—O’Reilly went on the offensive against what he called Nolan’s “outrageous behavior” with a carefully worded, lawyerly letter to Brian Roberts, the chairman and CEO of Comcast, which distributes Fox News and entertainment programming to its subscribers. The letter was written on Fox News stationery and was copied to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Pointedly, O’Reilly began by noting their mutual business interests. “We at The O’Reilly Factor have always considered Comcast to be an excellent business partner and I believe the same holds true for the entire Fox News Channel. Therefore, it was puzzling to see a Comcast employee, Barry Nolan, use Comcast corporate assets to attack me and FNC.”

O’Reilly’s letter was received by Comcast on May 12, and Comcast immediately fired Nolan. Was there any connection between the two? Last December, Comcast issued a hardly credible denial on that score, asserting that “professional journalists need to have the right to express their opinions without fear of correction or retribution from a corporate parent.” But Comcast failed to tell the company line to its lawyers. In response to Nolan’s lawsuit, they stated:

Mr. Nolan’s protest… harmed the business and economic interests of Comcast in connection with its contract with Fox News Channel, and its contract negotiations with Fox News that were ongoing at the time.

The only direct proof for this contention is O’Reilly’s letter, which indeed took dead aim at the commercial relationship to bolster its attack on Nolan. In sum: Nolan was fired because he had the nerve to criticize the decision to honor O’Reilly and O’Reilly directly threatened economic retaliation against Comcast.

The O’Reilly-Nolan story is an excellent demonstration of what happens in contemporary news and opinion broadcasting when independent and critical thought crosses commercial interests. Independent and critical thought invariably comes up on the short end.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today