Letter accuses public utility of bullying media critic


By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board used taxpayer and ratepayer-funded resources to intimidate a newspaper editor who spoke out against the utility, according to a letter a taxpayer rights group recently sent to the Federal Communications Commission.

Officials with the Virginia-based Taxpayer Protection Alliance wrote the letter to the FCC as part of that agency’s public comment phase over possible new regulations.

Drew Johnson

As previously reported, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to use his agency’s power to overrule state laws — such as those in Tennessee — that limit government-owned Internet networks such as EPB from expanding beyond municipal boundaries.

Public utility officials, the TPA alleges in its letter, threatened to withdraw advertising dollars from the Chattanooga Times Free Press unless its conservative viewpoints editor stopped speaking out against the utility.

The letter also makes other allegations against EPB.

The TPA’s letter also accuses EPB of similar bullying against other media in Chattanooga.

As for the Times Free Press, former viewpoints editor Drew Johnson, whom the paper famously fired last year for writing an unflattering newspaper headline about President Obama, says EPB resorted to bullying tactics.

“Two people at the paper, including one in a very high managerial role, told me that, as a result of my editorials and columns that exposed the failures of EPB’s fiber services, lies surrounding the (Gigabit), the exorbitant cost of the scheme to taxpayers, and the electric utility’s horrible behavior in the community, EPB had threatened to pull advertising from the Times Free Press unless I stopped reporting the truth,” Johnson said.

Johnson used the paper as a platform to criticize EPB for using taxpayer money to create its own ultra-high speed Internet service and compete against private providers, which he calls socialism.

EPB dramatically decreased ad buys with the newspaper immediately afterward — almost $60,000 worth, Johnson said.

EPB spokeswoman Danna Bailey, in a statement to Tennessee Watchdog, adamantly denies the accusations.

Tennessee Watchdog had hoped to ask Chattanooga Times Free Press publisher Bruce Hartmann if these accusations are true.

Unfortunately, Hartmann failed to respond to three emailed requests for comment, as well as three voicemails spanning all of last week.

Tennessee Watchdog asked Bailey directly if EPB warned the Times Free Press that it would discontinue advertising with the paper because of Johnson’s published opinions.

But Bailey didn’t answer the question directly.

FCC: The FCC has received a complaint against EPB in Chattanooga alleging bullying practices against the media.

“According to statements of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Drew Johnson was fired for violating that newspaper’s policies. Mr. Johnson was responsible for his actions,” Bailey said in response to the question.

“EPB had nothing to do with his termination.”

After Johnson’s firing, EPB resumed its normal advertising, Johnson said.

Tennessee Watchdog directly asked Bailey if Johnson’s assertion about what happened after he departed was true, as it pertained to the level of advertising. Bailey did not answer that question directly. She said the TPA’s letter contains many false and misleading allegations.

Is Johnson, who is now an editorial writer for the Washington Times and a senior fellow at the TPA, telling a credible story, especially given how he left the paper?

“I certainly don’t hold a grudge against the Times Free Press,” Johnson said.

“Second, I’m actually not involved directly in the FCC filing or in any ongoing research that TPA is doing regarding EPB. My work with TPA is extremely limited because of my responsibilities at The Washington Times.

As a senior fellow, Johnson said he helps guide the TPA’s work on state pork report-type publications, reading budgets and filing open records requests for financial documents.

Johnson also said he occasionally writes op-eds for the TPA and represents the organization in the media when local or state spending issues pop up.

Photo courtesy of EPB's official website.

BULLY: Did Chattanooga’s EPB bully an outspoken newspaper editor?

If not directly involved, what is Johnson’s connection to the letter the TPA sent to the FCC?

“I was interviewed by TPA about my experiences in Chattanooga and that, I believe, was used as a basis for some of the letter. Some of the letter is obviously based off of things I wrote previously in various publications.”

An FCC spokesman told Tennessee Watchdog on the record last week that the agency received the TPA’s complaint letter and had no further comment.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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