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More Options, Less Access: Chuck Johnson On How Montana’s Journalism Landscape Has Changed

Parsing the Press

Veteran journalist Chuck Johnson joins Sally and Gwen to talk about the good and bad changes and challenges in Montana journalism over his over 40-year career — including decreased access and increased distrust.

Listen now on Parsing The Press, with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio

Sally Mauk Chuck Johnson is known as the dean of Montana journalists for good reason. He covered state politics for over 40 years for the AP, the Great Falls Tribune and Lee Newspapers before he retired in 2015. He also mentored legions of Montana reporters, including yours truly. No one is more qualified to talk about what's good and what's bad about journalism today than Chuck, and we're pleased to have him as our guest. 

Chuck, not that long ago, if a Montana reporter asked a politician of any party for a comment on an issue in the news, you got an answer directly from them. But now you're more likely to get an "I'll get back to you" from someone on their staff who eventually responds with some bland statement that tells you nothing. It's a terrible change. 

Chuck Johnson Yeah it's not for the better, that's for sure Sally. And what that also means is well, you don't get to talk to the politician or the director of an agency as often. But you also, when you get a statement, an emailed statement, you don't get a chance to get follow up questions. That's what really hurts. 

Sally Mauk When you don't get a chance to get follow up questions, what is lost for the public when this kind of accountability isn't present? 

Chuck Johnson Well you get a doctored PR statement that really often doesn't answer the real questions you want to get. So I see stories often these days, and it happened when I was reporting, too, where you just say, well, you get a statement from a spokesman for an agency, sometimes it doesn't even quote the director or the governor. You know, you see ‘the press spokesman said’ or ‘the media spokesman said this.’ And it was the case with federal agencies for years. And granted, they're massive agencies and they got demands from all over the country, people wanting to talk to them. I always like to be able to try to talk to a director, or more importantly, a governor or a U.S. senator or a rep. And more and more, it's just a statement from a spokesman. And that's not good, in my opinion.

Gwen Florio Chuck, it hasn't always been that way. Can you talk about when you did have more direct access, what that was like, and again, the benefit to the public when you had that sort of access? 

Chuck Johnson Well, there have been some past politicians that were really, really accessible. John Melcher, as U.S. senator, had a policy in his office in Washington that if a reporter called, only he could speak to them. That was good, although sometimes that meant waiting until late in the day to get a hold of him. And sometimes it meant even if you just had a question about the acreage in a Wilderness proposal that a staffer could answer, you always got Melcher. But that was better than the current one. 

Gov. Ted Schwinden was great about accessibility to some extent. Gov. Marc Racicot, Gov. Judy Martz were great about accessibility, and Brian Schweitzer certainly was great. I mean, he always insisted on answering the questions. 

But I think more and more we're seeing just this case where — and I think Jon Tester is pretty good about it — but more and more it's just ‘a spokesman said’ with an emailed statement, which really is kind of a bland way to do it and doesn't get responsive to what you really want to ask. 

Sally Mauk Another change, Chuck, is how many newsmakers now think it's fine to just flat out lie about something that they know is a lie. And of course, the current clear example is that Joe Biden didn't win the 2020 election. When reporters point out the lie, they get accused of bias. How do we get back Chuck, to people trusting journalists who are merely pointing out the truth?

Chuck Johnson That's a $64,000 question, Sally. I don't have an easy answer on that. You know, when I grew up in the 50s and 60s, people had three TV networks to choose from: Walter Cronkite at CBS, Huntley-Brinkley at NBC and different people at ABC News. There was no public radio. You couldn't read The New York Times or The Washington Post at home unless you got a mail subscription ... or went to the library, which meant you'd see it three or four days late; and you had your daily newspaper. So there were far, far fewer sources. Nowadays, I can sit at my computer and read any paper in the world. So we have this diversity of media options available to people. No one central repository of news that we can all trust. So people tend to turn to the medium that they like, maybe politically, or they like the coverage of. So there's hundreds of places people can turn to. How do we get people to trust the media? I don't know. I mean, there have been a lot of efforts, different news organizations are doing these news education shows and things online. They're all pretty good. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don't. I think reporters just need to keep doing their job and hope people will listen and watch and read. 

Gwen Florio Chuck, in all your years of Montana journalism, what's the biggest change you've seen in the media here over those years? And is it a good change or a bad change? 

Chuck Johnson Talking about political coverage and coverage of the Capitol and the Legislature, what we're seeing has been a good change. We're seeing more and more reporters on the ground. This last session I don't think we've ever had more reporters covering it — most in person, I think, but a number doing it remotely because of the COVID virus. More is better. You know, if you don't like the way one organization or one reporter reports it, you can look at it at competing ones. That's all to the better, I think. And I hope it continues. I think it's a great development. You know, we have the traditional media, the newspapers, the AP, the television networks. We've got the public radio stations, Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio working together, and we've got nonprofit news sites like the Montana Free Press — full disclosure, I'm on the board of directors there — have the Daily Montanan and we have Kaiser Health News. And there may be more I'm forgetting. This is great and I hope they all continue on the beat and I hope that they'll work as hard during the interim, and I know they will to try to figure out what all the laws and changes that we've passed at the legislature — what do they mean to Montanans, will they survive the courts, What do they mean to a farmer up in Scoby, what do they mean to a logger in Libby. You know, the aftermath of the session is really the critical time when you see, what do these laws do. Are they working as intended? What are the consequences for ill or good? 

Sally Mauk How much do you miss it Chuck? 

Chuck Johnson Well, I do miss it. I follow the Legislature fairly closely. I only watched a couple of debates, but I read, listened and watched. You know, it was a strange session. We don't often have a session where one party, like Republicans did this time, have such massive majorities in the Legislature and control the governor's office. The equivalent session for the Democrats, I think, would have been ‘73, ‘74 when they had big majorities and a Democratic governor in Tom Judge running the state. And there we saw huge changes, reforms coming from the left in terms of environmental laws, labor protection laws, health laws, human rights laws. So this is the counterpart to that. A lot of the changes passed in the early ‘70s, of course, are being changed or repealed in the 2021 session. 

Gwen Florio Chuck, given the stresses and challenges and the news business these days, what advice would you give a young reporter just starting out? 

Chuck Johnson Well, I think covering a legislative session, if a young reporter gets the chance, or a city commission or city council or county commission, is great training. If you cover the Legislature — and there are a lot of really good young reporters covering their first one — you know, you will learn about fish and game policy, you'll learn about health policy, taxation policy, you'll learn about the Montana Constitution. I think it's the best experience a young reporter can get and it'll serve that reporter well for the rest of his or her career. 

Sally Mauk And if they're lucky enough to work alongside a reporter as experienced and talented as Chuck Johnson, they will for sure treasure that for the rest of their life. 

Chuck, thanks so much for being our guest today. We're out of time.

Chuck Johnson Thanks a lot, Sally and Gwen, I enjoy your show. Thanks, Chuck.

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