Roy Exum: Why Drew Lost His View

  • Sunday, August 4, 2013
  • Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Several months after Drew Johnson was hired in June of 2012 to write editorials for the conservative side of the Chattanooga News Free Press opinion pages, it became apparent to the staff and readers alike that management had made another colossal blunder. Johnson exhibited two of the most “deadly sins” of a columnist – a brash arrogance and an inflated ego. Neither of the deplorable traits had ever been witnessed before on either of the opinion pages that make the Times Free Press unique in the publishing world.

Worse, the founder of what Johnson claimed was a “free market think tank” was quickly identified as particularly mean-spirited, his perceived inner anger sometimes overshadowing his rightful opinions. Anyone who thinks that his sophomoric headline directed at President Barack Obama this week to “shove it” was the reason he was unceremoniously dumped should study the circumstances. It was merely the straw the newspaper needed – and wanted -- to terminate its latest embarrassment.

Drew Johnson was first thought to be a young and vibrant voice to follow the many years Lee Anderson had plied his logic and clear thinking as the conservative voice of the city. Disappointingly, it was soon apparent that Johnson hardly fit the respected role and that he would soon follow in the catastrophic way that former editors Tom Griscom and J. Todd Foster had all but destroyed the newspaper’s newsroom and its integrity only a few short years before.

By November of last year the beleaguered newspaper, its silent concern growing over the latest “loose cannon,” created a new – and somewhat amusing -- position of “Editor of Opinion Pages.” Between Anderson and Austin there was never the need for such senseless oversight but Johnson was clearly different.

Mark Kennedy, a mild-mannered editor who had directed the newspaper’s lifestyle section, was picked to presumably police the brash newcomer, whose vicious attacks on such people as U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and political hopeful Greg Vital were stunning and appalling. Soon some longtime readers were actually cancelling their subscriptions.

According to countless sources, Johnson’s opinion was never once censored – get that straight -- but, too often in today’s world, mindless critics get confused over “ownership” and “censorship.” Johnson was known for playing outside the lines, for defying the reasonable rules that all writers and editors are asked to respect, and at some point he seemed to conveniently forget who signed his paycheck.

Face it, no reputable newspaper on earth wants “gutter words” and vulgar innuendo on its pages, most especially those invoking an opinion, and it hardly takes a stretch to think Johnson’s silly action this week was probably directed at his handlers as much as to bring attention to himself during the president’s visit. The act was unprecedented and sad indication that Johnson may well need some type of professional help.

What the public needs to understand is that Johnson, continuing to “buck at the bit” of the increased and quite unexpected oversight, had become a bigger problem than an asset to his employers in less than a year. By this spring it became obvious to close observers that the newspaper’s leaders were searching for a way to fire Drew in much the same way that they had duly disposed of the tyrannical Griscom and the shameful Foster.

In an ill-thought effort to buffer Johnson’s angry rants, the newspaper curiously introduced right-wing political activist Robin Smith as a sometimes columnist. Smith, who had turned her own political defeat into a shameful disaster, had already polarized the area’s watchful community and her presence, quite predictably, further alienated the newspaper’s largely conservative-minded readership. (Her inability as a writer was of no help either.)

Harry Austin, the newspaper’s respected liberal voice, announced his retirement after 37 years in April and this time – much to Johnson’s chagrin – the Times Free Press wisely turned to veteran writer Pam Sohn as his replacement. Sohn, well-versed in the community’s weave and fabric after 28 years as a writer and editor, fit perfectly. Sohn’s quick acceptance and knowledgeable grasp of the city made Johnson look even worse.

Because of Johnson’s inability or unwillingness to embrace Chattanooga, its people and its history, he never caught on with the majority of his readers and, this week, when he waited until Kennedy had left the newspaper to defiantly change a headline, it showed not just intended malice but proved he continued to assault and deride the trust the newspaper put on display when its leaders hired him.

Shortly after he was chosen last summer, Johnson’s Twitter account got hacked and, when Drew was asked about the meaningless drivel that suddenly appeared on his Drew’s Views account, he was haughty. “I have some suspicions (who did it.) When your job is to be a watchdog and tell the truth about politicians, you make a few enemies."

This week his ego and arrogance leapt from his Twitter account again when he wrote, “I just became the first person in the history of newspapers to be fired for writing a paper's most-read article." That is hardly the truth, no matter how much mileage he was able to squeeze from it. Drew Johnson was fired because he regularly and increasingly antagonized his employer. It is that simple.

To assume it was due to disrespect for the president or even a vulgar innuendo makes for good TV fodder but censorship and politics had nothing whatsoever to do with it – it was a case where Drew Johnson finally gathered enough of his own rope to hang himself. It had been coming for months, I am telling you.

As the liberal national media pounced on the juicy story, the Times Free Press responded with a pronounced “ouch”  but then pulled a pitiful rabbit from the P.R. hat by alluding they had once censored Johnson for wanting to promote pornography to deter teenage pregnancy. Oh, please! Either Johnson was goading his handlers or there is far more to the story. Nobody is that stupid and, for the newspaper to allege it in an unsigned and unattributed news article, is proof that poor judgment, low journalistic standards, and even lower integrity still thrive at 400 East 11th Street. What a marked lack of class.

It is the weekend rumor Drew Johnson will soon appear on “Good Morning America” but, then what? He tweeted he will get married in two weeks and hopefully he’ll come to his senses, curb his anger and his ego, and go on to be a good writer and better person. But it won’t be in Chattanooga.

The Times Free Press can’t leave town. Now aptly embarrassed and known for a miserable batting average when it comes to acquiring major leaguers, the newspaper has another chance to give its readers more reason to subscribe. That is what brings in ad revenue and offsets the cost of new printing presses.

But with a newsroom where reporters claim they are scared to speak and a reign of losers not easily forgotten, owner Walter Hussman better start paying more attention to whomever it is that brings in such a parade of bozos. My goodness gracious – what next?

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