Open Mic

This is What Happens When You've Been Raised With Too Much Frank Capra and Not Enough Barry Diller (Starring Bill O'Reilly, Fox News, Comcast and Introducing Barry Nolan)

Chuck Ross Posted August 17, 2010 at 6:47 AM

Frank Capra specialized in David vs. Goliath stories. We’re all familiar with his Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” wherein Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey comes to realize that as long as one has family and friends it doesn’t matter what Goliath—Mr. Potter—is throwing at you. And, if you do have family and friends, then “right” will prevail anyway.

 

In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Stewart plays the wide-eyed, naïve junior Senator Jefferson Smith, who faces being crushed by the political machine of Goliath, James Taylor.

 

With the words of screenwriters Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman, the rhetoric of Capra films is powerful and seductive.

 

Consider, for example, this classic scene from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”:

 

Senate President: The Chair recognizes -- Senator Smith!

 

Senator Smith:  Thank you, Sir. Will I guess the Gentlemen were in a pretty tall hurry to get me out of here. The way the evidence is piled up against me, I can't say I blame them much. And I'm quite willing to go, sir, when they vote it that way. But before that happens, I've got a few things I want to say to this Body. I tried to say them once before, and I got stopped colder than a mackerel. Well, I'd like to get them said this time, sir. And as a matter of fact, I'm not goin' to leave this Body until I do get them said.

 

Senator Paine: Mr. President will the Senator yield?

Senate President: Will the Senator yield?

Smith: No, sir, I'm afraid not. No, sir. I yielded the floor once before, if you can remember, and I was practically never heard of again. No, sir. And we might as well all  get together on this yielding business right off that bat, now. I had some pretty good coaching last night, and I find that if I yield only for a question or a point of order or a personal privilege that I can hold this floor almost until doomsday. In other words, I've got a piece to speak and blow hot or cold, I'm going to speak it.

Senator Paine: Will the Senator yield?

Senate President: Will Senator Smith yield?

Smith: Yield how, sir?

Senator Paine: Will he yield for a question?

Smith: For a question, alright.

Senator Paine: I wish to ask my junior colleague -- this piece he intends to speak: Does it concern Section 40 of that Bill -- the dam at Willow Creek?

Smith: It does, sir.

Senator Paine: Every aspect of this matter, the Gentleman's attack on that Section -- everything -- was dealt with in Committee hearings.

Smith: Mr. President.

Senator Paine: I wish to ask my distinguished colleague: Has he one scrap of evidence to add now to the defense he did not give and could not give at that same hearing?

Smith: I have no defense against forged papers!

Senator Paine: The Committee ruled otherwise! The Gentleman stands guilty as charged. And I believe I speak for every member when I say that no one cares to hear what a man of his condemned character has to say about any section of any legislation before this House.

Senate President: Order. Order, gentlemen.

Smith: Mr. President, I stand guilty as framed! Because Section 40 is graft! And I was ready to say so. I was ready to tell you that a certain man in my State, a Mr. James Taylor, wanted to put through this dam for his own profit -- a man who controls a political machine and controls everything else worth controlling in my State. Yes, and a man even powerful enough to control Congressmen, and I saw three of them in his room the day I went up to see him.

Senator Paine: Will the Senator yield?!

Smith: No, sir! I will not yield! And this same man, Mr. James Taylor, came down here and offered me a seat in this Senate for the next 20 years if I voted for a dam that he knew and I knew was a fraud. But if I dared to open my mouth against that dam, he promised to break me in two. Alright, I got up here and I started to open my mouth and the long and powerful arm of Mr. James Taylor reached into this sacred chamber and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck --

You get the idea. Powerful stuff. And when we baby boomers were growing up, many of us saw the Capra movie repertory played over and over as old movies made up much of what was shown on TV.

 

That was certainly true of me and most of my friends. And I’m going to guess that it was also true of Barry Nolan.

 

I don’t know Nolan personally. I’m a National Public Radio junkie, and Nolan is on one of my favorite radio quiz shows that many NPR stations carry: “Says You!”

 

He’s clearly bright and witty and is excellent with wordplay, which is a primary focus of “Says You!”  It turns out that Nolan, 63, is a member of Mensa, which doesn’t surprise me.

 

For TV viewers in the New England area, Nolan is better known. In Boston, more than 20 years ago, he co-hosted “Evening Magazine.” He also co-hosted “Hard Copy” in the 1990’s, and about ten years ago was a reporter for “Extra.”

 

Most recently, and most germane to today’s blog, Nolan hosted “Backstage With Barry Nolan” on CN8, a regional cable channel owned by Comcast.

 

Nolan was fired from his hosting of that show in May, 2008. The story of that firing—and the subsequent $1.2 million wrongful termination lawsuit that Nolan filed against Comcast—are the subject of a feature article published this week by the Columbia Journalism Review. The piece, by Terry Ann Knopf—who years ago wrote some pieces for TVWeek when we were known as Electronic Media—is titled “The O’Reilly Factor: How the Fox host used raw corporate power to crush a critic.”

 

Here’s what happened. The Boston/New England Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences decided to give their Governor’s Award to Bill O’Reilly.

According to the article, Timothy Egan, then president of the Chapter, said, “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.”

 

In a piece Nolan later wrote for ThinkProgress.org, he said, “O’Reilly was an appalling choice, not because of his political views, but because he simply gets the facts wrong, abuses his guests and the powerless in general, is delusional, and, well, you might want to Google: Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

“Plus there was that whole sexual harassment thing – the lawsuit he settled for an estimated $10 million. Not the kind of guy you normally think of when it comes time to pass out honors.”

So Nolan then emailed the board members of the Chapter, urging them to reconsider their choice of honoree. Some of the board members agreed with him, but according the Columbia Journalism Review article, “The vote stood.”

Furthermore, Nolan “went public,” the CJR article said: “ ‘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.’ ”

 

Next, according to the article, “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.”

 

Nolan showed up at the ceremony, not in the traditional tuxedo, but in a blazer and slacks. He’d gone to Kinko’s and ran-off 100 copies of a six-page handout that he had put together. According to the CJR article, it contained “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.’ ”

 

According to the CJR article, “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.”

 

When O’Reilly was introduced to accept his award, Nolan left the premises.

 

Says the CJR article, “Two days later, on May 12, 2008, 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.”

 

This past December--one year and seven months later--David L. Cohen, Comcast’s Executive Vice President spoke to Los Angeles Times reporter Matea Gold. Cohen, according his official Comcast’s bio, “has a broad portfolio of responsibilities, including corporate communications, government affairs, public affairs, corporate administration, and serves as senior counselor to the CEO.”

 

Gold spoke to Cohen about Comcast’s view on news organizations, since the company will inherit NBC News if its deal to acquire NBC Universal is approved.

 

Gold brought up the Nolan firing. According to Gold’s article, “Cohen declined to respond in detail because of the ongoing litigation, but said that Nolan was not fired because he spoke out about O'Reilly.

 

“ ‘Barry Nolan was not fired for expressing his opinion as a journalist or for anything he did or said on the air,’ the Comcast executive said. ‘He was fired for repeated violations of company's policies and rules and insubordination.’

 

“Cohen said Comcast will not seek to interfere with NBC News' coverage or curtail its independence, adding: ‘Professional journalists need to have the right to express their opinions without fear of correction or retribution from a corporate parent.’ ”

 

In his ThinkProgress.org piece, which Nolan wrote just a few weeks after getting fired, he said, “ ‘Normally, in the great scheme of things – this should be a total non-story. ‘Overpaid White Guy Gets Fired from Cushy Job for Shooting Mouth Off.’ Yawn. But these are not normal times. After the word got out that I was fired – I started hearing from people from all over the country who were outraged. A guy in Texas who had once worked with O’Reilly and had seen a meltdown like the one on Youtube – a weather anchor in Arizona – a woman in China no less.

“And it all got me to thinking about the myth of free speech. In today’s America, speech is only ‘free’ when you are talking down to someone less powerful that you. Speak ‘up’ – and look out.

“In your work life, they can fire you, as I found out, for quietly saying something that is widely known to be true. Put a lid on it.”

Of course, Nolan was warned by his boss not to make a scene at the ceremony. While some may say Nolan’s passing out of his handout was not making a scene, Comcast would clearly disagree.

And clearly O’Reilly would disagree. He wrote a letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts calling Nolan’s behavior “outrageous,” according to the CJR article, which added, “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.’

Here’s where the story takes a turn, and makes one wonder about the veracity of what Cohen told Gold of the L.A. Times.

Knopf’s CJR article says that in response to a question asked by Nolan’s lawyers in his lawsuit, Comcast gave this written response last August:

… 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.”

Whoa, you may be saying to yourself. The smoking gun.

Cue Jimmy Stewart, playing Barry Nolan,  Alright, I got up here and I started to open my mouth and the long and powerful arms of Fox and Comcast reached into this sacred chamber and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck…”

But before we do, let’s temper our Frank Capra idealism with a dose of reality, courtesy of Barry Diller.

During a keynote panel at a cable convention some years ago the discussion turned to the power of cable operators, which some found outrageous. Diller calmly pointed out that companies that were allowed to act as oligopolies, or monopolies, would. That if they were left unchecked, it was in the interest of their shareholders to act as such, and why would anyone find that surprising?

It’s a simple and profound truth.

Back in the late 1980s, I was the TV reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. At a time of much less media consolidation, the Chronicle also owned the NBC affiliate, KRON.

As the TV reporter at the biggest newspaper in town, I tried to be scrupulous in treating all the TV stations equally. I think I was fairly successful in doing so.

One day I learned that KRON was sending local anchor Sylvia Chase to China for a series of special reports. As I recall, talking to some sources at the station I learned that the reports were being done in conjunction with a third party, and that it was an idea they had taken to a number of cities.

In the other cities the special reports were accompanied by similar special reports in the biggest local newspaper.

So I called up the editor of our paper and asked if the Chronicle had been offered the same deal. He said yes, and then proceeded to tell me why he didn’t like the deal and had decided that the Chronicle would not participate. He heard me typing as he spoke and asked me why I was typing what he was saying.

I told him that I was doing a story about KRON’s participation in the deal, and wanted to include why the Chronicle wasn’t participating.

“Oh no you’re not,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“We’re not going to piss on what KRON’s doing on this.”

I decided to leave the newspaper not long thereafter.

In a deregulated environment, media consolidation is the byword. In that environment, Comcast’s actions in this case were very rational.

The CJR article also talks about this case in terms of media consolidation: “In hindsight, the Comcast firing is less about two warring TV personalities than about the corrosive influence of over-concentrated corporate power. It was never a fair fight. Think Nolan at 5-foot-9 inches up against O’Reilly at 6-foot-4—with two giant media conglomerates behind him. Think Dustin Pedroia, the little Red Sox second baseman, up against the whole New York Yankee lineup.”

As for Nolan, he tells the CJR that “I don’t think they had the F-ing right to tell me what I’m allowed to say. In the end, I think they were trying to suck up to Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch and Bill O’Reilly in a way that’s spineless and appalling for a company [Comcast] that aspires to run a major network news operation [NBC]. What happens when Keith Olbermann goes after O’Reilly? I think that’s scary.”

Idealism is a great quality.  Naiveté not so much. Many of us have spent plenty of time battling windmills.

These days we hope we’re smart enough to pick our battles with some care, and devise strategies and accompanying tactics that at least give us some chance of winning.#