It is a tenet of traditional journalism that reporters are supposed to cover the story, not become the story. The rare exception is a reporter who covers a story so well for so long that he cannot help becoming part of the story himself. Phil Johnson was that kind of reporter. His story was New Orleans, and he covered it like no one else for four decades at WWL-TV.
Phil died last week at the age of 80. A part of New Orleans died with him.
Known to generations of New Orleanians for his signature TV editorials at the end of WWL newscasts, the stocky, bearded Johnson was an imposing figure on the tube. In real life, he was just a guy from the 3rd Ward — a 1946 graduate of Jesuit High School and 1950 graduate of Loyola. While still in college, he got his start as a sports writer at the old Item newspaper (where he worked with the legendary Hap Glaudi) and went on to become a fixture in local television.
TV was all about visuals, but Phil never strayed from the craft of writing. His editorials, which won numerous awards and earned him legions of fans, were well crafted, poignant and delivered in Phil's hallmark style, beginning with the words, "Good evening." He explained complex issues clearly and in few words, then drove home his point. When something went right, he would simply say, "and that is good." He always ended with a nod to the camera, as if to punctuate his conclusion, and then he signed off — literally — with another, "Good evening," after which he would pick up a fountain pen from its holder and sign his copy of the text, then grab the pages and straighten them by tapping them on the desk as the screen faded to black.
Many a local politician felt the sting of his criticism, but he always gave them a chance to respond on the air. Few accepted the challenge, and those who did never came across as comfortable — or as convincing — as Phil.
I was privileged to have met Phil right after graduating from Holy Cross High School in 1972. A family friend worked in WWL's sales department and offered to introduce me to Phil so I could get some advice about breaking into journalism. I was scared to death just to walk into the station, but Phil greeted me like a kid from the old neighborhood. I figured I might have 10 minutes of his time, if I was lucky. He gave me more than an hour, and I've never forgotten our conversation.
"What kind of job do you want?" Phil asked.
"Well, I think I'd like to have your job," I said, not realizing just how ridiculous I must have sounded. "You get to give your opinion every day, and I'd love to do that."
It didn't occur to me then that one day I would sit in the same studio and offer my own political analysis. Chalk it up to Phil's advice, which was, "Either you can write or you can't. If you can't, then all the journalism courses in the world won't help you. If you can, then you don't need a lot of journalism courses. Take just a few to hone your skills, and then study something to write about — economics, science, history, or politics."
Phil's advice served me well, and I have passed it along many times.
As news director at WWL, Phil hired some of the best in the business, many of whom have become legends themselves: Angela Hill, Garland Robinette, Jim Henderson and others. Phil also loved a good practical joke. One of his former colleagues, the late Bob Krieger, told me about the time he glued Phil's fountain pen into the holder. When Phil came to the end of that day's editorial, he reached for the pen and nearly came unglued himself when he couldn't pry it loose. Everyone on the set howled. Fortunately, the editorials were taped.
Phil's mark on local television lives on today, not only in the people he brought into the business but also in the station's continued ratings dominance. For me, he will always be the gold standard of TV commentary. "He couldn't exist today," James Carville told me last week, noting how today's TV commentators just shout at each other. Phil was way too classy for that.
So long, Phil. Thanks for the advice. You raised the bar for all of us ... and that was good.