On May 10, 2008, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Boston/New England chapter conferred its prestigious "Governor's Award" upon Bill O'Reilly, host of the Fox News Channel opinion program "The O'Reilly Factor." Some felt the choice of O'Reilly was improper given his reputation for inflammatory rhetoric and bullying of people who disagree with him. One person who took exception to the award was Barry Nolan, host of another cable show produced by Comcast called "Backstage with Barry Nolan." One month before the awards ceremony, Nolan emailed the Academy's governing board and asked them to reconsider giving the award to O'Reilly. Nolan also made public his opposition to the award. He wrote to the Boston Herald to say he was appalled at the Academy's choice. Nolan said O'Reilly was "a mental case" who "inflates and constantly mangles the truth." Nolan sought and received some support for his protest from within the higher echelons of Comcast, but in the end, the academy's vote stood. Determined to take a discreet but public stand, Nolan attended the award ceremony, bringing 100 six-page fliers he had made up listing some of O'Reilly's more outrageous quotes.
Nolan's Protest and Firing
Nolan dropped his fliers in the hotel lobby, where attendees were having cocktails, and on tables in the hotel's Grand Ballroom. Eventually, he was approached by Timothy Egan, then president of the academy's local chapter, who told Nolan that what he was doing was "impolite." Nolan answered that he felt a gathering of journalists was precisely the right venue in which to air his views. Nevertheless, after receiving the security employee's request, Nolan stopped distributing his fliers. Nolan walked out of the ceremony just before O'Reilly was given the award.
Two days later, Nolan's boss called him at work and told him to go home. The next day, he got a formal letter saying he had been suspended without pay for ten days. One week later, Comcast fired him. Nolan filed a $1.2 million wrongful termination lawsuit against Comcast six months later, saying the company had violated his First Amendment right to free speech. After all, Nolan had attended the ceremony on his own time, and produced the fliers with his own money.
Nolan's firing raised suspicions among people in the Boston-area media market. After all, he had been a relatively small player in the media market, and, if ignored, his actions the night of the awards ceremony would have been quickly forgotten. Yet cable giant Comcast saw fit to force him out. Why? According to documents filed in federal court pursuant to Nolan's lawsuit, the mutual business interests of the two media giants, Comcast and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, owner of Fox News Channel, as well as Bill O'Reilly's desire for a personal vendetta, were at work.
Two days after the award ceremony, Bill O'Reilly had sent a carefully worded, threatening letter on Fox News stationery to the CEO of Comcast (which pays Fox to distribute Fox News Channel programming to its subscribers). O'Reilly copied his letter to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. In the letter, O'Reilly said he considered Nolan's behavior "outrageous" and a "disturbing situation." He claimed Nolan had attended the awards ceremony "in conjunction with Comcast," and that Nolan had used corporate assets to attack him. O'Reilly's letter contained a veiled threat against the business relationship between Fox and Comcast. The same day Comcast received O'Reillys's letter, Comcast mailed out Nolan's suspension letter.
It turns out that Comcast and Fox were having "ongoing" talks at the time over contracts, and Comcast was afraid that Nolan's protest against O'Reilly might harm its business dealings with Fox. To smooth things over, the answer apparently was to fire Nolan.
The Bigger Significance
Josh Silver of Free Press points out that all Nolan did was distribute fliers containing O'Reilly's own words. For his own part, Nolan notes the irony in the fact that he got fired for saying "demonstrably true things in a roomful of news people." After all, O'Reilly's quotes are a matter of record.
But beyond that, the case of Barry Nolan vs. Bill O'Reilly is about something more troubling: a powerful media figure using influence to crush someone lower on the totem pole, simply because he didn't like what that person had to say. It demonstrates O'Reilly's contempt for the First Amendment freedom of speech -- the same freedom O'Reilly himself regularly exercises, and profits from, through his television show. The case indicates the problems that can result from an over-concentrated media market, where a handful of companies control most of the major media outlets. Had Barry Nolan worked for a company other than the media octopus Comcast, he might have kept his job.
The case is a classic David and Goliath struggle, a regular guy going up against two of the biggest media conglomerates on Earth. The little guy will almost always lose, but Barry Nolan's situation also holds implications for the rest of us. Chief among them, it demonstrates how an overheated, right-wing media machine operates behind the scenes to silence and punish those who disagree with it.