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.