By contrast, Barry Nolan is small potatoes. He had stints on two schlocky nationally syndicated TV shows, co-hosting Hard Copy in the 1990s and reporting for Extra in the early 2000s, and he continues to appear on Says You! , NPR’s witty word game. In Boston, he was best known as the co-host, with Sara Edwards, of TV’s Evening Magazine—but even that was more than twenty years ago.
Comcast Corp., Nolan’s former employer, meanwhile, is the country’s largest cable operator and residential Internet service provider. Last December, in a $30 billion deal, Comcast announced plans to take over NBC Universal, which includes everything from NBC Nightly News and Jay Leno, to cable channels such as such as MSNBC, Bravo, USA, and Telemundo, the Spanish-language broadcast network.
The joint venture, pending before the Federal Communications Commission, has already faced criticism from public interest groups like the Center for Digital Democracy, which calls the proposed merger “the equivalent of Godzilla swallowing Rockefeller Center.”
And indeed, when power meets power, the little guy had better look out, especially when the interests of media heavyweights intersect. Cable providers (like Comcast) pay fees to networks (like Fox) to distribute content (like The O’Reilly Factor) to their cable subscribers, with the cable companies negotiating multiyear contracts with the networks. With tens of millions of dollars at stake, negotiations can be bruising affairs. Thus, it’s in the two Goliaths’ interest to keep relations harmonious.
And in this case, though O’Reilly’s usual in-your-face rhetoric was absent from his May 12th letter, the message was clear: Hey, Comcast, don’t forget which side your bread is buttered on.
O’Reilly’s letter and Nolan’s suspension letter went out on the same day—May 12—but because no telephone logs are among the court documents, it’s not possible to draw absolute conclusions about the connection between the two. Other documents, however, filed in connection with Nolan’s lawsuit strongly suggest that O’Reilly’s letter to Roberts was a key factor in his firing. Once Comcast was in receipt of the O’Reilly letter, e-mails, talking points, and memos went flying from one jittery Comcast executive to another. Should they call O’Reilly? Who should call? Should they send a letter? Who should draft it? Who should sign it? And don’t forget to CC Roger Ailes. Roberts himself was very much in the loop, but waited until May 22—two days after Nolan’s firing—to send O’Reilly an apology letter of his own. (Except for Nolan, none of the other parties would agree to talk for this story. Comcast issued the following statement: “As a matter of policy we do not comment on litigation or on other legal matters, but stand by our actions and intend to defend this lawsuit vigorously.”)
In December 2009 Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen insisted to Matea Gold, a Los Angeles Times reporter, that Nolan wasn’t fired for speaking his mind, and affirmed the importance of journalistic independence. “Professional journalists need to have the right to express their opinions without fear of correction or retribution from a corporate parent,” he said.
Perhaps he should have added—except when it involves the corporation’s business interests. Documents, filed with the court, reveal that Comcast and Fox were involved in “ongoing” contract talks at the time, with Comcast fearing Nolan’s protest “jeopardized and harmed” its business dealings with Fox. In response to a question posed by Nolan’s attorneys in his lawsuit, Comcast’s written response, dated Aug. 5, 2009, states:
… Mr. Nolan’s protest at the NATAS Award Ceremony and of William O’Reilly as the recipient of the Governor’s Award jeopardized and harmed the business and economic interests of Comcast in connection with its contract with Fox News Channel, and its contract negotiations with Fox News that were ongoing at the time.
Barry Nolan’s demise is not without larger significance. Notes Josh Silver, president and CEO of Free Press, a nonprofit media reform group based in Washington, D.C. “All Barry did was use the words of Bill O’Reilly and distribute them. He spoke truth to power, but the truth was outside the range of Comcast’s acceptable discourse.”
Truth, of course, is harder to define than raw corporate power. What’s clear is that over the past twenty years or so, thanks in part to government deregulation, the number of companies owning or having a dominant influence over our news and information outlets has dwindled from about thirty to just a few—Walt Disney, News Corp., Time Warner, Viacom—and, if the FCC approves, Comcast-NBC Universal. Such media consolidation means reduced competition and greater shareholder pressures and, possibly, attention to profits over the pubic interest. Indeed, some critics argue that such concentration of power is dangerous to our democracy, leading to a less vigilant news media and what one business journalist has called “a more muted marketplace for ideas.”