Over the years, once in a great while, I’ve been surprised to cross paths with a journalist at a major TV outlet who actually seems willing and able to go outside the conventional boundaries of media discourse.
That’s what happened one day in the fall of 2005 at the Boston headquarters of the CN8 television network, owned and operated by the corporate media giant Comcast. I showed up for an interview about my book "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." My expectations weren’t very high.
After all, I was setting foot in the studios of a large commercial TV channel with wide distribution of its programming in New England and beyond. And Comcast, shall we say, has earned a reputation as a voracious media conglomerate with scant interest in the public interest.
I was scheduled to appear on a prime-time nightly show hosted by Barry Nolan, a longtime TV newsman. When the cameras started rolling, it quickly became clear that he’d actually read the book — and was willing to explore its documentation and damning implications about the use of media to drag the United States into one war after another.
Wow, I thought. This guy Nolan has some guts. I wonder how he gets away with it.
As I later learned, Nolan — then in his late 50s — had a long record of satisfying the producers of high-profile TV shows. Overall, he was hardly a renegade. During most of the 1990s, for instance, he was an anchor of "Hard Copy," a syndicated and rather tabloid-like TV show.
I was interviewed by Nolan two more times, most recently last fall. I found him consistently well-informed, thoughtful, concerned with substance and willing to follow evidence to logical conclusions.
Nolan was apparently trying to provide the kind of public affairs coverage that’s in short supply from a TV world of superficial cable quip-fests and defamations.
In other words, Barry Nolan was trying to be what Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly is not.
And it turns out that Nolan isn’t just a good journalist. He’s also someone willing to take a risk on behalf of his conscience.
"Barry Nolan’s opinion of Bill O’Reilly spun him right out of his job," the ABC News website reported late last month. "The fed-up TV newsman lost his anchor seat after protesting a decision by a New England media association to bestow its top journalism award on the Fox News anchor."
Comcast fired Nolan from his job as an anchor at the network’s "Backstage" program. While Nolan was free to think it was outrageous that the New England chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences opted to give its highest honor to O’Reilly, the network’s problem was that Nolan actually did something about it.
At a May 10 banquet for the awards ceremony, Nolan passed out a six-page summary of some of the low points of O’Reilly’s career. "Nolan said he objects to the commentator’s bullying style, claiming that O’Reilly frequently bends the facts in order to get across what he described as venomous opinions," ABC News reported online. "It’s not the type of journalism that should be recognized in the profession for excellence, he said."
The Comcast management thought that Nolan’s use of the First Amendment was unbecoming of an anchor.
Barry Nolan’s response: "I’m interested in telling everyone in the country to stand up and say something is wrong when something is wrong. We’ve been through an awful dark time in our history where there are a lot of people telling you to sit down and shut up. From Dick Cheney to Bill O’Reilly, I’m done with bullies."
Later, in an article that appeared on the Think Progress website, Nolan elaborated: "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."
But what Barry Nolan quietly passed out at the awards dinner was not a matter of opinion. He provided information — in particular, direct quotes from O’Reilly. And that was too much for the Comcast network. As Nolan puts it, "I got fired from my job on a news and information network for reporting demonstrably true things in a room full of news people."