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.”
Recent examples abound. Take the case of Cablevision, the nation’s fifth largest cable operator. Two years ago, at a time when it owned the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, Cablevision purchased Newsday for around $650 million. By April of this year, The New York Observer was reporting complaints of “rank censorship” in the sports department’s coverage. “There’s a general resignation to it all here,” said one Newsday insider. “It just feels like another blow to the integrity of the paper. The other shoe finally dropped. Cablevision bought us, and now it’s finally happening.”