Turn statist search, seizure on head, populist editor at newspaper urges

Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial writer Drew Johnson smiles at Daniel Appleget, right, at a Chattanooga Tea Party meeting. Behind him, left, are mayoral recall activists Charlie Wysong and Jim Folkner.

On June 20 and 21 the feds raided two pain management clinics, yanked patients from their vehicles, arrested scores on outstanding warrants, snooped into their pain management care and seized clinic records. The raid by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency was aided by the TBI, the Sheriff’s Department and city police.

The rise of the police state is everywhere present. There seems very little the people can do against these exercises of police discretion reported in local media with muffled questions and bland reporting. Police and government seem to be always in the right, and the people in the wrong, needing either chastisement or some new free service of “help.”

Fighting back

But a take-charge newspaper editor in Chattanooga has in his briefcase a legal instrument to  give the popular will a means of resistance. He proposes turning Tennesseans into government watchdogs, snoops and skeptics, a feeder system for the paper’s news staff. His hammer can’t shatter the monolith. But it might send microcracks spidering along its squat base and cause some agonized throbs in its inward part. It might serve as a relief valve to the people’s rising apprehensions about a national financial disaster.

Drew Johnson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press is a gust of cool air sweeping into Chattanooga and Hamilton County. He addressed 70 members of the tea party Thursday, identifying himself as a tea-party American and a fighter for the interest of the common man as against time-keeping civil servants.

In the back-and-forth over the day’s headlines, Mr. Johnson drew raves from the Republican stalwarts for a heated piece attacking Sen. Lamar Alexander for his support of an oppressive federal environmental bill.

He took his licks from the activists over his editorial, “Haslam right to hire Muslim,” which seems to have snarled off his fingertips so quickly it gave the piece a hangnail. Offended readers chastised Mr. Johnson’s attack on seemingly insensate West-state Republicans opposed to the hiring of Samar Ali, a Waverly, Tenn., resident with a Mohammedan background. Mr. Johnson advised the GOPers “not to pander to racists, homophobes and bigots,” which evidently they did in complaining about Gov. Bill Bredesen’s employee. Ms. Ali had studied Sharia-complaint Mideast finance in an earlier labor that gave her enough experience to be hired as international director of the state’s economic development agency.

With the contents of his briefcase and his prolific output of daily text, Mr. Johnson is locking the paper’s right-side editorial page in attack mode. This development is important for Chattanooga Publishing Co., fighting a media tide in favor of the Web. The paper makes most of its living as a printer of news and deliverer of ads in ink.

Mr. Johnson replaces Steve Barrett, who resigned in March, and the respected but wearying conservative icon, Lee Anderson, who left the paper April 18 after seven decades as reporter and editorial writer. Chattanoogans had been put to sleep by Mr. Anderson’s generalized praises of free markets and constitutional government. His work, for all its grace, regularity and beaming admiration of political liberty in a national context, failed gradually to engage — or enrage — partly because he didn’t bring his arguments home.

“You make a lot of friends and you don’t want to make fun of your friends,” Mr. Johnson said. “I don’t think that Lee was willing to go after people, to hold people accountable, because he’d see ’em at church, he’d see ’em at the barbecue — stuff like that. And I just am going to be just very careful not to let personal relationships get in the way of my thinking.” The group applauded.

Mr. Johnson is frank about his purpose at the Times Free Press. He asked listeners what they suppose is the purpose of a newspaper. The answer: To generate a profit for its owner, Walter Hussman and Wehco Media in Little Rock, Ark. ”So they hired me, thinking, ‘So here’s a guy who says things that tick everybody off in the course of a week as we saw, and we’ll get people reading.’ So I think they wanted somebody who had commitment to a principle but who would also needle elected officials and hold people accountable, and I see that as my role.”

Rousing the base against official overreach

Hence his proposal to Mark West and other people at the tea party event. He suggests that the citizen watchdog take upon himself to snoop into the government’s business using the open records request form. He came with a stack of them and afterward handed out copies.

An open records check brought Mr. Johnson national attention. The morning after Al Gore won the Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” Mr. Johnson came to his Nashville think tank office and said, “I bet that guy uses a lot of electricity in his own home, and our investigative reporter said, ‘Well, in Tennessee, utility records are public records.’ If you know the address you can ask for it. So, I looked up Gore’s address. It wasn’t a very hard thing to do, and I requested the records, and about two hours later I found out that his average bill was 20 times higher than the average American’s. And he’s telling everybody not to turn on your air conditioning in the summer — exactly, ride your bicycle instead of your car, all this silliness. *** His average utility bill was 1,980 dollars a month. I mean, for most of us the average utility bill is 200 dollars.”

The citizen muckraker. The nosy do-gooder. The cranky defender of the constitution. The high-minded taxpaying citizen with a beef over a disputed property valuation. The vociferous troublemaker. The concerned citizen. These are potential seekers out of news, suppliers of tips, collaborators with the free press.

Record requests “became something I fell in love with,” he said. “You can ask for open records for almost anything the government does. You can ask for checks that they write. You can go through their check registers. You can go through their debit cards and see if they went to — I actually found somebody who took a county credit card  — this in Northeast Tennessee — to a strip club, and I found another one where a guy took his county credit card to the Knoxville Victoria’s Secret to buy his, not his wife, but his mistress some [underwear]. So, those are the things that are really easy to find, and something, if you put it on your blog or your Facebook page or talk to somebody at the local paper, you can get a lot of press.”

Free market arguments

Mr. Johnson’s argument has two parts. Civil government has no place in many areas of life, and should humbly get out. Secondarily, where government agencies operate, they should operate within the parameters of the law, and not waste taxpayers’ money. Here is where information requests will prove their value.

“Let me know if you find something good and I’ll make sure it gets in the paper,” he promised. “It holds elected officials accountable. If you complain about spending, it goes unheard. But if you ask for check registers where they know that you’re looking, you are going to stop thousands of dollars of spending just by them being scared that you’re going to find something.”

His call for document requests could give a sense of momentum to the pushback against a 150-year tide of progressivism and statism against the interests of a free people (or, should we say, a once free people). The tea party movement is a coalescing of that resistance.

The aggressive use of the Tennessee sunshine law could put bureaucrats on the defensive. It could curb their pride, their sense of invincibility, their continual new reaching into the private worlds of the people with their rules, benefits, freebies and obligations. It could make them more guarded, more willing to second-guess themselves.

In large measure the modern state has lost a very important subsidy from the people, namely, their willingness to submit to civil law, their voluntary cooperation with the state and its administration. The problem increases as the state reaches more into the lives of the people. Information requests are a way of stemming a loss of confidence, lowering in some way the hostility of the public to the state and maintaining the stability of the system. ‡

‡ This point is made in one of my all-time favorite books. Gary North, Moses and Pharaoh [;]) Dominion Religion versus Power Religion (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), pp. 288-294. Perhaps we can develop these points later: the experiences of Vladimir Bukovsky flooding the Soviet hierarchy with complaints in the late 1960s and the discussion of Milton Friedman on the capital stock of people’s willingness to obey the law and the limits of centralization.

Download a copy of the form from the state comptroller’s office here.