Whenever they say ‘it’s not about the money,’ it is about the money.”
- Fred W. Friendly
It was a balmy Saturday––a perfect night for champagne toasts. Some 450 people from the local television industry gathered in the Grand Ballroom at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, many of the men in tuxedos, the women in strapless gowns. The occasion was a dinner ceremony on May 10, 2008, to announce the local Emmy-award winners. Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray was on hand, as were bigwigs from the Boston/New England chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
The evening’s highlight was to be the presentation of the prestigious Governors’ Award to Bill O’Reilly, the host of Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. The award, voted on each year by a local board of NATAS governors, recognizes achievements in the television industry and is typically given to individuals with roots in the New England area. According to Timothy Egan, then the president of the academy’s local chapter, “Bill O’Reilly was selected because he hosted the top-rated talk show on cable seven years running. He worked at TV stations in Hartford and two in Boston. He wrote for The Boston Phoenix. And he holds master’s degrees from Boston University one from [Harvard’s] Kennedy School of Government. He is someone who understands New England’s journalism industry and honed his skills here.”
To some participants, though, O’Reilly was an odd choice. For all his success as a media superstar—cable TV host, newspaper columnist, and best-selling author—O’Reilly has long been dogged by critics turned off less by his conservative politics than his inflammatory rhetoric and bullying tactics.
Barry Nolan was one. Then the host of the CN8 cable program Backstage with Barry Nolan, produced at the time by Comcast out of Brookline, Massachusetts and carried on its cable outlets from Maine to Virginia, Nolan was particularly taken aback. A month before the event, he fired off a couple of e-mails to the academy’s governing board, urging the members to reconsider their decision. Next, he went public. “I am appalled, just appalled,” he told the Boston Herald’s gossip column, Inside Track, calling O’Reilly “a mental case” who “inflates and constantly mangles the truth.”
Interestingly, Nolan had some support within Comcast and within the twenty-plus-member local Emmy board. At least two board members, Roger Lyons, national trustee and former president of the local NATAS chapter, and Ken Botelho, an engineering executive with Comcast as well as a board member, had second thoughts after considering Nolan’s e-mails. O’Reilly is “a well-known TV personality and has a large following,” Lyons wrote in an e-mail to his fellow board members. “But his indiscretions, inaccuracies, and prejudices disqualify him for such a lofty honor.” Minutes later, Ken Botelho, a board member and, equally important, Comcast’s vice president of engineering and network operations, e-mailed Lyons back. “Very well said, and I agree,” he wrote. … “If we do not reverse course there will be a backlash from others in the industry seriously questioning the integrity of this award…it will be a ticking time bomb if we set this in motion. The groundswell is already beginning.” But the vote stood.
Rumors spread that Nolan might try to disrupt the ceremony or even bring to the event, as his guest, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, O’Reilly’s liberal nemesis. (Nolan admits sending an e-mail and a letter to Olbermann, but says he never got a reply.) Five days before the awards, Eileen Dolente, Nolan’s supervisor, traveled from Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters to Boston and warned Nolan not to make a scene.
He didn’t, really. But Nolan was determined to take a discreet but public stand. On the night of the awards, he deliberately dressed down. “I own a tuxedo, but I wanted to wear something that was socially appropriate, but minimal,” he recalls. “For me this was not a special evening. I think I wore a blazer and slacks.” En route to the event, he stopped at a Kinko’s to run off 100 copies of a six-page handout he had drawn up featuring what Nolan thought were some of O’Reilly’s more outrageous quotes—such as, “I just wish Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out”—as well as excerpts from an infamous 2004 sexual harassment lawsuit filed against O’Reilly and later settled out of court, complete with details about “loofah” and “falafel.”
Arriving at the Marriott Copley, Nolan dropped off his handouts in the lobby, where partygoers were having drinks, and on tables in the Grand Ballroom. He refrained from plopping any on the guest of honor’s table. “My grandmother would not want me to be unnecessarily rude,” he explains.