Tom Johnson: ‘Do your best to go to the front lines’

Former CNN chief discusses LBJ, Vietnam, Ted Turner and battling depression.

More than anything, Tom Johnson credits “champions” for shaping his life.

Without his mother and mentors like a newspaper publisher, Bill Moyers, President Lyndon Johnson (no relation) and Ted Turner, the hardscrabble kid from Macon probably wouldn’t have gone to Harvard Business School, worked in the White House, been publisher of two large papers or headed CNN for 11 years.

Ever grateful, Johnson, 73, has helped others, including people like himself who battle depression. He talks about what he’s learned from a life full of impactful people and experiences.

Q: What did you learn from your first champion?

A: My mother worked as a clerk six days a week in a grocery store, but her focus was on me.

My dad suffered health problems all the time that I knew him. He smoked Lucky Strikes around the clock. Because he was really unable to work, the full load of taking care of the family was on my mother. She was, by far, the earliest and most important champion I had.

She told me that if you work hard and do right, you can become anyone you want to become.

I knew I had to go to work to help out. Starting when I was about 12, I sacked groceries and pumped gas.

Q: Then you got a part-time job that would end up changing your life. What happened?

A: In ninth grade, my English teacher said there was a job to bring in the high school sports scores to the Macon Telegraph.

I needed the money. The sports editor taught me how to cover the games. I earned $5 a game and 15 cents a column inch.

I quickly fell in love with it. I enjoyed seeing that byline, By Tommy Johnson, in the paper. It was like I was becoming somebody.

Q: Your editors saw how hard you were working and brought it to the attention of the publisher, Peyton Anderson. What did he do?

A: I did not have the funds to go to college. There was no HOPE Scholarship in 1958-59.

The publisher called me to his office and told me the staff was impressed with my work. He told me he would provide a financial scholarship to the University of Georgia if I continued to work at the paper.

It taught me the importance of having champions.

During my four years at UGA, I commuted most weekends to Macon to work at the paper.

I loved the work. It’s important to discover your passions early. I would hope that young people today can do that, because it isn’t like work if you’re really enjoying it.

Q: Then what happened?

A: While I was finishing up at UGA, the publisher asked me what I most wanted to do. I told him I would love to be a publisher like him someday.

He said I needed a business degree and that if I could get into Harvard Business School he would pay my way.

I got in and he paid it.

Q: What happened after you got your MBA?

A: When I graduated, I was expected to return to the paper in Macon. But I read a short item in the New York Times about a one-year internship program at the White House for young people.

When I was chosen in 1965 for the program, the publisher in Macon was supportive.

I was assigned to the press secretary to the president, Bill Moyers. I found another champion in him.

Bonus questions

Q: What did he do?

A: On day one, Bill Moyers walks me into the White House to meet President Johnson. From that point on, I was treated as part of the staff. I did prep work for every news conference that Moyers had.

After a year, President Johnson wanted to me to stay, but I had an obligation to go back to Macon. Johnson wrote to the publisher and said that he needed me. The publisher could not turn down the president of the United States.

Q: What was it like to work for President Johnson?

A: LBJ wanted everything done yesterday. He wanted the mail answered the day it arrived.

He wanted a phone call answered the day it came in. He insisted that a call from a Republican was just as important as a call from a Democrat.

I became a note taker for high level meetings on the Vietnam War.

Q: What did you learn from that?

A: Your judgment and decision making are no better than the information you are receiving.

I thought LBJ was receiving more positive information from the military chain of command than was accurate.

The lesson is to be very skeptical of the information flow. Do your best to go to the front lines. Sometimes, that can be the sergeants and lieutenants. At the newspaper, it can be in the pressroom or with the reporters.

I urge all senior management to stay very close to their front lines. Managing by walking around is a very good concept for any CEO.

Q: LBJ was known as a skillful political negotiator. What was one of his favorite tactics?

A: If you were in the room negotiating with LBJ, he would bring coffee and tea and more coffee and more tea, and he would not let you leave the room until you would make a deal. You couldn’t go to the bathroom.

In the evenings, he would ply you with alcohol.

Q: You became close to the president and first lady, and you did not return to the Macon paper in 1969 after LBJ left the White House. Why not?

A: It was one of the toughest calls in my life. I was absolutely intent on going back to Macon. I had an unbelievable tug of loyalty to the publisher and the Macon paper.

But the president and Mrs. Johnson repeatedly asked me to accompany them back to Texas. I just felt a significant personal need to do that.

I ended up running the wide range of their family businesses, which included media.

Q: That helped propel your newspaper career after LBJ died in 1973. You became editor of the Dallas Times Herald and then publisher and CEO. You then became publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 1980, overseeing a decade of growth for the Times Mirror-owned paper. What did you learn?

A: In times of abundance, it’s important to invest in research and the future. You must not be content with the prosperity you’re enjoying today because the market, reader habits and competition keep changing.

The time to prepare for war is during times of peace. But no one foresaw the power of the Internet.

Q: Your life changed dramatically in 1989 when you were kicked upstairs to become vice chairman of Times Mirror Co. Why did that affect you so deeply?

A: I loved what I was doing, being the hands-on publisher of the L.A. Times. I was promoted out of what I loved. My self-worth was tied into my publishing position.

I went into deep, clinical depression. The doctors started me on a routine of drugs. I was like a zombie. I would crawl under my desk to take a nap during the day to get my battery charged.

I say to every young person and every executive who I see — don’t become a workaholic like I did. You’re far more than a title or position. It took a long time for me to realize that.

Q: Ted Turner threw you a lifeline, offering you the job of president of CNN, which you ran until 2001. What was it like to work for him?

A: Until I met Ted Turner, I thought LBJ was the most complex person I had ever known.

Ted is the only person I would use genius to describe, with his spectacular vision and determination. He is truly driven to make this world a better place by preventing accidental nuclear explosion, removing land mines, cleaning up the environment and doing many other things.

I loved working for him. He wanted us to be the best.

Q: Since retiring from CNN, you’ve thought a lot about how mental health issues should be handled in the workplace. How should they be?

A: Depression is a treatable illness. There’s a terrible stigma because it’s a mental health condition. But I am convinced that with the right diagnosis and the right medication, you can deal successfully with it.

I wish that more CEOs gave more support and attention to the mental health of their employees. I am convinced that we need to move to a world where we can deal as openly with mental health problems as we do with physical health problems.

I hope more of us who battle the demons can feel OK to go for treatment. I take an antidepressant daily and probably will for the rest of my life. I am probably 90 percent successful, but there are still periods when the black dog comes back and bites my butt.

I will help anybody who asks to talk with me about their depression.

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Johnson’s remarks were edited for length and clarity.

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