Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson, a journalist who covered Montana politics for more than four decades, will receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Montana State University during the spring commencement, MSU officials said Friday.
Johnson, during his nearly 45-year career, reported on 22 Montana legislative sessions, seven governors, nine U.S. senators and 10 U.S. representatives, in addition to countless state legislators, elections, conventions and policies. Johnson also reported for the Associated Press on Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention. He is believed to be the longest-serving statehouse reporter in Montana.
“If we have any understanding of Montana’s government and how it has impacted Montana’s citizens over the course of nearly a half-century, it is largely thanks to Chuck, who felt a profound sense of duty to keep the public informed and to be a watchdog," MSU President Waded Cruzado said. "We are deeply indebted to him for his service.”
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Johnson – who was born in Great Falls and raised in Helena – began reporting in 1974 for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena, then at the Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau in Helena, and served as bureau chief from 1984-1992.
From 1992-2015, he was bureau chief for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, writing for Lee newspapers across Montana, including the Billings Gazette, Montana Standard, Helena Independent Record, Missoulian and Ravalli Republic.
Johnson retired in 2015. He came out of retirement to cover the 2017 session of the Montana Legislature for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
His reporting was widely regarded as clear, fair and balanced, according to his honorary doctorate nomination materials. Johnson was “clearly recognized by other journalists, by legislative staff, by legislators themselves and members of the executive branch … as a walking institution of fairness who doggedly sought to inform the citizens of Montana about how their democracy was working,” wrote Tracy Ellig, who covered the Montana Legislature in 1997 as a journalist and now works as MSU’s vice president for communications, in a letter supporting Johnson’s nomination.
Two more supporting nominators, John S. Adams and Brad Tyer with Montana Free Press, wrote that Johnson’s reporting “was always factual, fair and infused with a sense of history and institutional knowledge that gave readers a broad perspective on the most significant issues of the day.”
They also noted that Johnson – who was sometimes called “the dean of the capitol press corps” – mentored countless journalists.
Sarah Vowell, an author and MSU alumna who also provided a letter in support of Johnson’s nomination, included details about Johnson’s meticulous coverage of Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention, gleaned from the archive of Johnson’s personal correspondence with his then-editor at the AP.
“There is an amusing – and telling – exchange of letters between Chuck and his editor in which the editor admonishes Chuck to stop doing such a scrupulous job of covering the convention, which often stretched late into the night, and just file more stories already,” Vowell wrote. “Chuck pledges to crank out more copy but offers this excuse: ‘I am really the only reporter in the debates all the time.’ During what was arguably the most important historical event in the history of Montana since Little Bighorn, Chuck Johnson was its most reliable – and sometimes the only – witness.”
Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in history, both from the University of Montana.
He lives in Helena with his wife, Pat. He serves as board president of Montana Free Press, a nonprofit online news publication. He also served on the Montana Historical Society board from 2015-2020, and, from 1990-2016, on the board of the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, a nonprofit that retains a lawyer to help citizens, including the media, gain access to government documents and meetings.
Commencement ceremonies are scheduled for May 13.