By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

O’Reilly called Nolan’s protest “outrageous”

Barry Nolan

Barry Nolan

Two years ago, the Phoenix newspapers bestowed one of their annual Muzzle Awards on Comcast for firing Barry Nolan, the Boston-based host of “Backstage,” which appeared locally on CN8.

Nolan’s apparent offense: speaking out against a decision by the National Academy of Arts & Sciences to present a coveted Governors Award to Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Nolan showed up at the Boston Emmy Awards to protest the choice.

“I got fired for saying demonstrably true things in a roomful of news people that people agreed with,” Nolan told me at the time. “Which tells you more, I think, about the times we live in than about the idiosyncrasies of somebody at Comcast.”

Now, at long last, Nolan’s story — and his $1.2 million wrongful-termination suit against Comcast — is getting a full airing. Earlier this week, the Columbia Journalism Review posted on its website a 2,700-word story by veteran Boston journalist Terry Ann Knopf. The chief revelation: a “carefully worded, lawyerly letter” from O’Reilly to Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts in which O’Reilly said he considered Nolan’s one-man crusade to be “outrageous behavior” and “a disturbing situation.” O’Reilly wrote:

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.

(Disclosures: Knopf, a former longtime television critic for the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, interviewed me for her story, and quotes me. Also, I have spoken twice to her media-criticism students at Boston University.)

Now, it’s true that Nolan publicly referred to O’Reilly as “a mental case.” But the fact that O’Reilly would reach out to crush a critic who was in no position to do him any real harm only serves to underscore his reputation for bullying people. It’s even more disturbing that Comcast, which is now trying to acquire NBC, would cave.

Oddly enough, Knopf’s story was originally slated to run in the Boston Globe Magazine. When Knopf interviewed me, she was on assignment for the magazine. In late July, I received a call from a Globe Magazine fact-checker. Both Knopf and Globe Magazine editor Susanne Althoff declined to comment this week when I asked them why the piece was killed.

The story of Barry Nolan and Bill O’Reilly is the story of what happens when someone goes up against two of the most powerful media corporations on the planet. In the Age of the Internet, the moguls may not be what they used to be. But they’re still moguls. And they’ve still got a lot of power.

Photo (cc) by Bev Sykes and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. Laurence Glavin

    One fact that jumped out at me while reading the story: Comcast was paying Nolan MORE THAN $200K of MY money! I know this was slightly earlier than the media recession and downward pressure on media salaries that have been experienced lately, but still…a largely unwatched show on local cable?

  2. Andy Koppel

    What also strikes me is how yet again this proves the old adage that “people with the sharpest tongues have the thinnest skins.” I am always amazed at how those with a public forum which they use for indiscriminate attacks are incapable of withstanding criticism that pales in comparison with what they dish out.

    It seems to me that this is particularly true of those who align themselves with the right (O’Reilly, Coulter, Savage, Limbaugh, etc.). However, it is also true of those in the so-called mainstream media (Mike Wallace, Tim Russert, etc.) who never allow their critics even a small percentage of the latitude they demand for themselves.

  3. Rick Peterson

    I believe this was a case of one’s “mouth writing a check his body couldn’t cash”. Fortunately, he appears to have landed on his feet. I’m pretty sure that people without connections don’t go to work for the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress. Does beg the question of why some PR firm in Boston wouldn’t snap up a local “name” though.

  4. Laurence Kranich

    @Laurence G – Remember, the article says “Backstage with Barry Nolan” was seen from New England to Virginia. For a market that size, a $200K salary for the host is not overly generous. I’m sure it was part of a strategy to upgrade CN8 to a network level of programming instead of the “public access” image it had before. Clearly that strategy didn’t work out. The part of the story that’s neglected in Terry Ann Knopf’s article is that it’s likely that Comcast was glad for any excuse to stop payment on Nolan’s paychecks. 6 months after this happened, they fired everybody on “Backstage” and in fact shut down the entire network. That’s not because of Bill O’Reilly, that’s because nobody watched CN8.

  5. Neil Sagan

    Still, its hard to imagine that the terms of Nolan’s contract prohibit what he did – hand out a leaflet with O’Reilly’s own words on it.

    He was not an employee at will – who can be fired at any time for any legal reason or for no reason at all – he was a party to an employment contract with written terms. The terms of the contract state the standard of behavior required. Can you imagine if Comcast did not run it pat legal?

    I’d like to see the agreement.

  6. Christian Avard

    FYI, FAIR weighs in on the story.

  7. Frank McEvoy

    Well, I live in Alexandria, Virginia. When I read about the Nolan-O’Reilly deal, I called the Senate offices to see if I could meet with Mr. Nolan, just to shake his hand and thank him for having a spine. He got right on the phone with me; dropping by for coffee was readily agreed upon.

    I’m not certain, but I’m sure Mr. Nolan got to see at least half of his Comcast salary figure evaporate into the oosphere. The money’s fun, but it distracts from the main issue: Mr. Nolan had the courage to realize he had to stand up and tell the truth about O’Reilly (who’s really an entertainer, not a journalist). I met with Mr. Nolan just to thank him for having a spine, something not found that often on Capitol Hill. (BTW, O’Reilly wouldn’t have had the class and grace to carve out some time for a stranger.)

    Courage itself is not often found on the Hill either. You may focus on the money, but Mr. Nolan didn’t know what would happen when he confronted Mr O’Reilly (I would have thrown cream pies in Mr. O’Reilly’s face). Mr. Nolan I’m sure considered his annual income right now would have been $00.00 (before taxes).

    I remember Mr. Nolan from my time in Boston and DC. He was always a good journalist. This O’Reilly confrontation showed he wasn’t a good journalist: He was really a great one.

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