The 'Dean' Of Montana Capitol Reporters, Chuck Johnson, On 'Home Ground'

Jul 9, 2016

The founders of our nation placed a great deal of trust in the role of a free press as the key to maintaining informed public opinion. Chuck Johnson, a professional newspaper reporter for 44 years, is in a good position to say how we're doing.

Johnson, a student of history as well as journalism, recalls an early point of synthesis between the two:

"My history mentor and advisor at the University of Montana was K. Ross Toole. He was highly critical of the role the Anaconda Company played in the press in Montana. They owned most of the major dailies for forty of fifty years - all the Montana newspapers now owned by Lee Enterprises. In the early years, they played an active role trying to decide which candidates they wanted to win elections. Stories are told that the newspaper editors would call the 6th floor of the Hennessey Building in Butte (the headquarters of the Anaconda Company) to get their directions on what stories would run where, and in the early days, which politicians to go after and which ones to support."

On Montana's Constitutional Convention, which Johnson covered for AP:

"It was probably the most fascinating experience of my career. It was at a time of reform in Montana; you had a budding environmental movement, the 18-year-old vote, the women's movement, and Montanans who were tired of the control that the Anaconda Company and Montana Power had exercised. Through a series of circumstances, including a Supreme Court decision, sitting legislators were ineligible to run as delegates for the convention. So the people who ran were mostly not connected to the system. It opened the door to a lot of good citizens. There was a beekeeper, a disc jockey, a Catholic priest, a Methodist minister...It was a totally open process; they didn't allow lobbyists on the floor and required them to report their expenditures, which the Legislature had never done before that. They set about to do their business and wrote what I think is still considered one of the best constitutions in the country among state governments."

Watch Evan Barrett's interview with Chuck Johnson on Johnson's first decade covering Montana government.

(Broadcast: "Home Ground Radio", 6/26/16. Listen on the radio or online, Sundays at 11:10 a.m., or via podcast.)