BOZEMAN — 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 university’s spring commencement, university officials announced today.

MSU's spring commencement ceremonies are scheduled for Friday, May 13, at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

“We are delighted to recognize Mr. Chuck Johnson with the highest commendation MSU confers,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “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. We are deeply indebted to him for his service.”

Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson (MSU Photo)
Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson
(MSU Photo)

Over the course of his nearly 45-year reporting career, Johnson covered 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, which is widely regarded as one of the most consequential events in Montana’s history. He is believed to be the longest serving statehouse reporter in Montana.

Before Johnson – who was born in Great Falls and raised in Helena – began his career as a full-time journalist, he gained significant experience beginning in 1967 through part-time and temporary work with the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and the Associated Press, as well as through an internship with the Helena Independent Record.

Johnson’s first full-time reporting position was for the Missoulian, where he worked from the fall of 1972 through 1974. He then began reporting for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena, then at the Great Falls Tribune Capitol Bureau in Helena, where his work included serving as bureau chief from 1984 to 1992.

From 1992 to 2015, he served as bureau chief for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, writing for Lee daily newspapers across the state, including the Billings Gazette, Montana Standard (Butte), Helena Independent Record, Missoulian and Ravalli Republic (Hamilton).

Johnson retired in 2015. He came out of retirement to cover the 2017 session of the Montana legislature for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Later that year, he also covered a two-day special legislative session for the Missoula Current and Last Best News.

Johnson’s 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 in the halls of the Montana Capitol.

“From journalism students to early-career reporters covering a critically important beat for the first time, Chuck always willingly helped young journalists learn the ropes of covering state government,” Adams and Tyer wrote. “He treated younger reporters as peers, and with the utmost respect. Many of those reporters went on to have bright journalism careers in Montana and beyond.”

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 also spent September 1978 through June 1979 studying politics and economics at Oxford University in England on a Rotary Foundation fellowship for journalists.

Johnson lives in Helena with his wife, Pat. He currently serves as president of the board of directors of Montana Free Press, an independent, nonprofit online news publication. He also served on the board of the Montana Historical Society from 2015 to 2020, and, from 1990 to 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.

Judge Sidney Thomas of the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will also receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters at the May 13 commencement ceremonies.

- by  Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service -

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