Montana journalist Chuck Johnson
Journalist Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson, who covered Montana politics for more than four decades. Credit: John Adams / MTFP

Chuck Johnson, known by admirers as “the dean of the capitol press corps,” will receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Montana State University May 13 during spring commencement, MSU announced last week. 

Johnson, born in Great Falls and raised in Helena, where he now lives, worked as a reporter in Montana for nearly 45 years, covering 22 legislative sessions and hundreds of elected officials and policies for every major newspaper in the state. 

He is currently president of the Montana Free Press board of directors, and has previously served on the boards of the Montana Historical Society and the Montana Freedom of Information Hotline, which helps citizens and media organizations gain access to government documents and meetings.

Early in his career, he reported on Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention for the Associated Press. 

Author Sarah Vowell, an MSU alumna who wrote a letter in support of Johnson’s nomination, has recently been immersed in Johnson’s personal archives while researching an oral history of the Constitutional Convention and organizing a Con-Con anniversary event co-produced by Montana Free Press and MSU.  

“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.”

During an interview for the oral history, Johnson recalled the convention, which led to the adoption of Montana’s current Constitution containing a right-to-know provision that opened state government to a previously impossible level of scrutiny by the public and the press.

“The key provision, it says all meetings and all documents shall be public unless the right to individual privacy exceeds the public’s right to know. It’s really the public’s right to know. Not the press’ right to know,” he said. 

The clarification is characteristic of a reporter who, according to a letter supporting his nomination by MSU Vice President for Communications Tracy Ellig, 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.” 

MTFP also supported the nomination with a letter of recommendation describing Johnson as “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.”

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

“We are delighted to recognize Mr. Chuck Johnson with the highest commendation MSU confers,” MSU President Waded Cruzado said in a release announcing the honor. “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.”

Johnson will speak on a panel commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Constitutional Convention on the MSU campus in Bozeman March 22 alongside former U.S. Senator and Ambassador to China Max Baucus, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and 1972 Con-Con delegate Mae Nan Ellingson. His oral history interview, alongside those of the convention’s surviving delegates, will be preserved in the Archives and Special Collections of the MSU Library. The collection will be publicly available through the MSU Library’s website after the March 22 event.

“Since the news became public, I’ve received many messages from friends, old and new. It’s been a pretty amazing experience,” Johnson told MTFP. “I am thankful to MSU President Waded Cruzado for choosing me, other MSU staff who have worked on this and the people who nominated me. I will accept the honor with gratitude as a journalist who was lucky enough to cover a fascinating era of Montana history and politics.”

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After starting professional life covering music for the Houston (Texas) Press in his hometown, Brad has worked as an editor at the Texas Observer in Austin and the Missoula (Montana) Independent. Along the way he's freelanced for publications including High Country News and the Los Angeles Review of Books.