On the cold, blustery weekend after Thanksgiving 2003, north Florida AM radio firebrand and political activist Andy “Down to Business” Johnson made a rare appearance on the cable news circuit. The venue was Fox News’ “From the Heartland”, hosted by former Congressman John Kasich [R-OH]. Kasich brought together outspoken Iraqi war opponent Johnson and syndicated conservative radio wunderkind Ben Ferguson to discuss the merits of President George W. Bush’s morale-boosting trip to Iraq earlier in the week.
Those familiar with Fox News and its “fair and balanced” style of debate won’t be surprised to hear that Johnson found himself at the mercy of many disparate elements [technical problems exclusive to Johnson’s mike, for example]. At this point, only a fool would expect anything better from Rupert Murdoch’s Aussie-owned mouthpiece for American neoconservatism. But Johnson claims the experience was slanted even beyond reasonable expectation.
Regarding the modulation of his volume throughout the segment, Johnson said the following. “I truly do not know whether the volume was merely a matter of stupidity and incompetence or whether it is part of the general plan to terrorize the folks who disagree with the host [or] anyone who is not in agreement with the Fox position. I think I was cut off once due to technical problems and 2 or 3 [other] times because they did not want to hear what I had to say.”
Microphone problems, like plane crashes and celebrity show trials, are a centerpiece of both Fox News and the stateside political culture it nurtures. Yet Johnson claims that Fox stooped far lower than mere techie trickery in its efforts to engender cognitive dissonance on his end.
“I never got a clear indication from Fox on what would be the topic of discussion. As late as one hour before the show, the folks in D.C. told me it would probably be about Medicare.” Johnson, a veteran media hand and former member of the Florida legislature, knew better than to believe that.
“About ten minutes before my segment, they took me in to do make-up and to [sit] in front of a camera. At no point was I able to see or hear a monitor. During the last ten minutes they turned on my headset for a moment to let me hear a little of the Michael Jackson stuff, making me think I was probably about to be asked about Michael Jackson, causing me to waste the last few minutes mulling over what might there be useful or constructive or worthwhile or timely for anyone to say about Jackson, devoting none of that time to mulling over the Bush trip to Iraq,” Johnson added.
But Michael Jackson was the least of Johnson’s problems. It was as if the talk jock had been hit by a smooth criminal. There were teasers for his spot interlaced throughout earlier segments of “From the Heartland” that Johnson fairly describes as “brutal”. Johnson’s headset, worn so that he could hear the debate in which he was engaged, cut in and out as if shorted. But apparently feeling that the deck wasn’t stacked quite enough, Fox had a few more trick plays to call.
“I was absolutely astonished to find out that Fox, apparently, does not normally let people with opposing views have access to a monitor prior to or during these segments. But it appears that folks with views which are Fox views do get access to monitors before and during these segments. They own the network. They have the legal right to be as unfair as they choose. But it is amazing that they go on and on about “fair and balanced,” and yet, even thirty seconds out, chose not to tell me what would be the topic.”
Fair, balanced, and unafraid, goes the slogan. In defense of Fox, Johnson cites the “Heartland” booking agent claiming days before the taping that “you never know” what the topic will be. And if nothing else, Johnson made a worthwhile enemy for his troubles.
Towards the end of the show, Kasich and Geraldo Rivera [host of the show just after “Heartland”] saw fit to discuss the erstwhile Congressman’s guest. “There was some additional exchange between the host and Geraldo where the two of them made some comments about how they just could not believe the [audacity of what I’d said]. I do very much consider it a mark of distinction, something for which I can be proud, if, in fact, Geraldo saw fit to ridicule me on national TV.” The mark of a resilient man: someone who can find a silver lining in a psy-op.