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The Times Free Press fired Drew Johnson for breaking the "normal editing process" by changing the headline on the editorial to the one above. (Credit: President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, 4 June 2009 By Chuck Kennedy and Times Free Press, screenshot)

The Chattanooga Times Free Pressa daily newspaper with a circulation of about 75,000, fired opinion editor Drew Johnson for changing an online headline to criticize President Barack Obama.

According to an Aug. 1 statement on the paper’s website, Johnson posted the following headline:  “Take your jobs plan and shove it, Mr. President: Your policies have harmed Chattanooga enough.”  The headline appeared on top of an editorial that “criticized the president’s job creation ideas and Chattanooga’s Smart Grid,” according to the Free Press.  Obama was in Chattanooga the day the headline was posted, August 30.

As the newspaper’s statement explains, Johnson’s headline was “inappropriate” because he broke the “normal editing process.”

“It was not the original headline approved for publication, and Johnson violated the normal editing process when he changed the headline,” read the newspaper’s statement.

Oddly, despite the Free Press‘s stated disapproval of the headline, it has not been changed as of Aug. 1 at 4 PM EST, iMediaEthics notes.

Lest anyone think the newspaper was firing Johnson because of bias against Obama, the Free Press claimed that Johnson wasn’t fired for “the content of the editorial,” noting the paper has “often printed editorials critical of the president and his policies.”  Further, “this newspaper places high value on expressions of divergent opinion, but will not permit violations of its standards.”

In an interview with The Blaze, a news site founded by Glenn Beck, Johnson said he didn’t know he had to have headlines approved.

“Their claim is that the headline was changed at the last minute, which it was and happens almost every day,” Johnson told The Blaze.

Johnson added that the newspaper often uses “filler headlines… and it has been very common to either change a headline myself or have a copy editor change a headline.”  Johnson also claimed that his editorial “represented the viewpoint of most of the people that read my page” and that he got a lot of positive feedback from readers.

Johnson has tweeted a lot since the announcement of his firing.


 

He responded to tweeters saying that at the paper “we change headlines all the time” and claimed that the headline approval policy “did not exist when I ‘broke’ it.”
 

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iMediaEthics has reached out to the Times Free Press asking why it hasn’t changed the editorial headline if it disapproves so much, for a response to Johnson’s claims that the policy in question didn’t exist when he changed the headline, and what the formal policy is for  the newspaper’s “normal editing process.” We’ll update with any response.

UPDATE: 8/1/2013 4:49 PM EST: Alison Gerber, the Times Free Press’s editor, told iMediaEthics by email that Johnson had been told he needed approval for “material changes” to posted content and repeated that his firing was for a failure to abide by the paper’s policies. Her full statement:

“Drew Johnson has been told on numerous occasions that he cannot make material changes to the Free Press page without the consent of the editor who is responsible for editing and proofing Drew’s work and that page.

“On Monday, he waited until that editor had left for the day and changed the headline on the Obama editorial.

“I want to be very clear on one point: Mr. Johnson was not fired for writing an editorial ripping Obama’s jobs plan.

“We have allowed Mr. Johnson to write his opinion freely and without censorship during the time he worked here. In fact, the Free Press page has printed many editorial critical of Obama.

“Mr. Johnson was terminated for violating our editing and operating policies. He did so in order to use a headline that we consider inappropriate. There are many ways to express disagreement about the president’s policies without being crude.

“While many people complained about the headline, many liked it. But that does not make it appropriate for our newspaper. We did not make this decision because people complained. Mr. Johnson’s statement that we created a policy retroactively because people complained simply is not true.

The Times Free Press has two opinion pages – the conservative Free Press page and the liberal Times page. We do not take one political side but try to offer both views.

“We will continue to publish a wide range of political viewpoints.”

We’re asking Johnson for a response.

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OK to Criticize Obama, Not OK to Change Headline, Chattanooga Free Press Says about Editor firing

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