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?”
It turns out, however, that such suspicions were well grounded. Documents filed in federal court as part of his suit show that beyond Nolan’s mouthing off publicly against O’Reilly, there was another factor at work—the mutual business interests of two media giants, Comcast and the Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which owns the Fox News Channel.
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.” Telling the Comcast CEO that Nolan had attended the Emmy Awards “in conjunction with Comcast,” O’Reilly apologized for bothering him but let him know he considered this “a disturbing situation.”
Consider for a moment the weights of the players in this episode. News Corp. ranks second in the latest Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest entertainment companies, right behind the top-rated Walt Disney Company. And if Murdoch is the visionary behind the News Corp. and Fox News CEO Roger Ailes is the driving force behind the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly stands as the channel’s most visible face, which gives him significant clout. Indeed, this year, O’Reilly was voted one of the “10 Most Powerful in TV News” (tied with Glenn Beck for seventh place) by NewsPro, an industry trade publication—the sixth time O’Reilly has made the list. (Ailes was number one this year.)