HELENA — During their 68th session, the Montana Legislature took some time to honor two men who spent decades telling the public what was happening at the State Capitol – including one who’s a very familiar face to MTN viewers.
Last month, the Montana Senate approved Senate Resolution 53, which recognizes former MTN chief political reporter Mike Dennison for his service to the people of Montana. It was one story that caught even him by surprise.
“It was just kind of random, really,” Dennison said. “Someone called me up and said, ‘Did you see that resolution that they're going to pass to honor you?’ I said, ‘What? No, really?’”
Dennison began his reporting career with the Great Falls Tribune in 1981, then worked the next decade as a wire-service reporter in Helena, Seattle and Grand Junction, Colo. He then returned to Montana, where he spent nearly 30 years covering state politics and government – first with the Tribune as its Capitol Bureau chief, then with the Lee Newspapers State Bureau, and finally with MTN from 2015 until his retirement in 2022.
SR 53, sponsored by Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, thanks Dennison for his commitment to “report the facts, get to the truth, and be fair and objective in his news coverage,” and encourages reporters to “follow his example of excellent journalism in the Last Best Place.”
“This is a person that I think was fair, accurate in his reporting,” Ellsworth said during a hearing on the resolution. “I’ve had dealings with him. He's reached out to me and never reported anything without reaching out to me and asking comments. And that's something that we're actually starting to miss in news today. Certainly, you see it being a lot more hyper-political, and Mike Dennison never did take things to a hyper-political position.”
Dennison said, after so much time covering legislation at the Capitol, it was a strange feeling to be the subject of a resolution.
“Probably my favorite part of it is that there's a little paragraph about earning the mutual respect of a variety of parties, including the downtrodden and the public,” he said. “And if I earn the respect of those two parts of Montana, then I will have had a successful career in my book.”
Also, the House and Senate each passed resolutions honoring Dennison’s longtime colleague and friend Charles S. “Chuck” Johnson, who passed away in March.
Johnson, Montana’s longest-serving statehouse reporter, was known as “the dean of Montana political journalists.” At the start of his career, he reported on the state constitutional convention in 1972. He went on to spend more than 40 years as a newspaper reporter, covering 22 Montana legislative sessions, seven governors, nine U.S. senators and ten U.S. representatives.
The resolutions describe Johnson as “a man of integrity, a student of history who sought knowledge daily, and a fearless reporter who pursued truth, justice, and accuracy in the service of the state he loved.” They highlight his humility, his respect for others and his support for younger journalists.
Pat Hunt, Johnson’s wife, thanked lawmakers for the honor at a hearing.
“The Hunt-Johnson family is honored by this introduction of this resolution, but I want to let you know that Chuck would have been very embarrassed,” she said. “He was not one to draw attention to himself, just like the good reporter he was – it wasn't about him. But being a great reporter, maybe he would recognize that his life's work was a good story.”
Dennison and Johnson worked at competing papers for more than a decade before working together at Lee Newspapers for another ten years.
“That was just a great honor – tons of fun to work with him and Jennifer McKee,” said Dennison.
Dennison said he was glad to see Johnson honored for his work.
“You know, there's been a lot of denigration of the press in America – not so much in Montana – but a lot of politicians trying to negate the credibility of the press,” he said. “And here we have the state Senate kind of countering that, and saying that a free press and a good press is an important thing in Montana. And I'm really glad to see that.”
Also this session, the Legislature passed House Bill 855, sponsored by Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, which would allow private funds to be used to place a plaque at the State Capitol complex in honor of Chuck Johnson. That bill is now on its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.