Fired Tennessee newspaper editor: Termination was political and retroactive

Jeff Poor Media Reporter
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On Thursday, the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press announced the termination of one of its editors for what was deemed to be an inappropriate headline criticizing President Barack Obama on the day of a visit to Chattanooga to promote his economic policies.

Later that day, Johnson gave an interview to The Daily Caller in order explain his termination, claiming it was unmerited on the grounds that it was for a policy that had not yet been put in place. He explained the circumstances of inserting the headline at the minute prior to publication.

“It’s very common practice at our paper and I’m sure it is at a lot of papers to just plug in a space-holder headline or you know, you have a headline you’re not happy with and you change it at the last minute. And I probably did it myself once a week. In this case, I put in a placeholder that wasn’t good. It got time to publish the piece and I thought, ‘What goes with jobs plan?’ and I thought the Johnny Paycheck song, ‘Take this job and shove it.’ So I put that in there — put the title that you saw and the next day, while it was becoming literally the most read, not just editorial but [most read] thing ever on the paper’s website.”

Johnson explained that later that day he got called into his editor’s office and they conveyed their displeasure with the headline. And they informed him that going forward changes to headlines would have to be approved by another editor so that this would not happen again in the future.

And despite the alleged offensive nature of the editorial, Johnson pointed out the Free Press kept the editorial up online in its entirety without any adjustments.

“Keep in mind the entire time since they told me that people were offended by the editorial, they had the editorial online and it’s been read by — it’s got hundreds of thousands of clicks and they’ve made money and they’ve made plenty of money on online advertising,” he added. “And it wasn’t offensive enough for them to pull down and stop getting all the traffic.”

However, two days after the editorial had been published he was called in and fired for the piece.

“So I was brought into human resources today and I was told, ‘You’re being fired for violating the policy that you have to have an editor sign off when you make a change to a headline,’” he said. “Well, I said, ‘That’s funny, because that policy wasn’t in place until after I wrote the piece and you guys told me that was the policy on Tuesday. And I wrote the piece on Monday.’”

He argued the outcome might have been different had he criticized some right-of-center political leaders in his editorial.

“So I was fired retroactively for violating a policy that was not in place when I violated the policy,” he said. “So again, it’s not uncommon to change a headline, and you know, it wouldn’t have been issue if I had said take your jobs plan and shove it, Gov. [Bill] Haslam, the governor of Tennessee, or the mayor of Chattanooga [Andy Berke]. I think what it was is that you know, the paper just didn’t want bad publicity related to Obama on the day of his visit. And then also, they’re just sort of sycophants that just love Obama and defend him at every turn.”

Johnson said traditionally his editorial page has been conservative one, since it is a paper in the heart of the Deep South where Republicans and free-market conservatives have a strong presence.

He said his main focus going forward is to find a new job, and although he has no plans to take legal action against his former employer, he didn’t rule it out.

“It’s not off the table — I don’t have plans to currently,” he said. “I believe that I probably would have grounds legally. It’s something I would have to consider, but it’s nothing right now that’s imminent.”

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