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.
In the lobby area he was approached by Timothy Egan, who recalls telling Nolan that it was “impolite” to be distributing his handout at the ceremony. (Egan concedes that Nolan was not creating a disturbance, and that the conversation was held “in a quiet place.”) Nolan remembers telling Egan that he thought a gathering of journalists was precisely the forum in which to air his views.
During dinner, he complied with a request from a security person to stop passing out his literature. When it was announced that O’Reilly was about to receive his award, the guest of honor drew some boos from the audience, according to numerous eyewitnesses. Nolan remained silent. At that point, he says he turned to his son Alex, then twenty-three and his guest at the event, and said “Let’s get out of here.” The two left, and that was about it. There was nothing about the incident on the local newscasts that night, or in the next day’s papers.
Two days later, on May 12, Nolan got a call at work from his boss, instructing him to go home. The next day, he received a formal letter notifying him that he had been suspended for ten days without pay. A week later, on May 20, he was fired. “The call came about 11 in the morning while I was in my basement surfing on my computer. It was Eileen Dolente, calling to inform me my contract and employment at Comcast had been terminated. I said, ‘Okay’ and then hung up,” recalls Nolan. “I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough because I didn’t want to say all the things I was thinking.”
After working in television for nearly thirty years, Nolan had lost his $207,000 Comcast salary and, one month shy of his sixty-first birthday, was out of a job. Six months later, he filed a $1.2 million lawsuit against Comcast for wrongful termination, charging that his First Amendment rights “to speak freely” had been violated. In court documents, Comcast countered that Nolan had engaged in “insubordinate actions” and was in “material breach” of his contract for such transgressions as publicly protesting O’Reilly’s receipt of the Governors’ Award and for “repeatedly” failing to follow “clear directives” from Comcast. The suit is pending.
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?”