An interview with Dr. G. Timothy Johnson, ABC News medical editor
Readers of Pietisten – it’s time for a pop quiz.
What do the following individuals have in common: Paul Carlson, Mike Holmgren, Warner Sallman, Nils Frykman, Kirsten Haglund, and Tim Johnson? Give up? They are among the most famous members of the Evangelical Covenant Church. One might even refer to them as “superstars.”
Dr. G. Timothy Johnson is arguably the best known person of this group. As the Medical Editor for ABC News for three decades, Dr. Tim regularly reported news on “Good Morning America,” with anchors from David Hartmann to Charlie Gibson, “20/20” with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, and “Nightline” with Ted Koppel – programs which were often boasted over 15 million viewers in the United States and Canada. His presentations centered on various health trends and issues and were delivered with erudition and clarity, embellished by a mellifluous voice which would be the envy of any public speaker.
On ABC television, Tim addressed millions with an uncanny equanimity which, in modern parlance, could best be described as “cool.” (Case in point – in the early ’90s our daughter, Diane, received her MD degree from the University of Texas Medical School and entertained the notion of possibly pursuing a career as a television journalist. So we asked Dr. Tim if she could visit and observe his performance on ABC. He graciously extended an invitation and she accepted. One evening I called the doctor to see how thing were going. We talked for several minutes and abruptly he said that he had to hang up since he was due to be on “Nightline” in two minutes! Sure enough, in practically no time he was dialoging with Ted Koppel, completely at ease and typically fluent. Impressive, to say the least.)
In describing Tim’s fascinating, eclectic professional career, Wikipedia has gathered five categories: academic, minister, author, physician, and television journalist. I caught up with Tim and interviewed him about each of these aspects of his life working as a believer in secular settings.
Dr. Tim: As I begin to answer the questions below, I must note that I do so “under protest.” Quite frankly, I can’t imagine doing this interview for anyone else than the esteemed Dr. Rev. Arvid Adell. We have known each other for over 60 years and I have never been able to resist his beckoning charms. I can’t believe that this exercise would be of interest to anyone other than family and close friends. But once again, I have been unable to say no to Arvid. God help me.
AA: Tim, let’s begin with academics. What is your history as a student in various pedagogical institutions?
Dr. Tim: After graduating from North Park Junior College in 1956, I transferred to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I graduated from North Park Seminary in 1963, Albany Medical College in 1969 and Harvard School of Public Health in 1976. I did the Master of Public Health degree at Harvard just as I was beginning my TV work and also starting the Harvard Medical School Health Letter as its first editor. At that time I felt a glaring deficit in my knowledge of biostatistics and epidemiology, which I remedied with this degree. (I am moved to say that although I had some outstanding teachers at all of these places, none were better than many I had at North Park Junior College – Zenos Hawkinson, Carroll Peterson, and Paul Larson come immediately to mind.)
AA: Did you ever consider remaining in an academic career? Perhaps you feel as though in a number of ways you did?
Dr. Tim: Strangely enough, even though I had several opportunities to become a full time academic, that life never appealed to me. But, ironically, when I became a full time television medical editor starting in 1984 I always felt like I was “teaching on TV.” (One time on Good Morning America, Charlie Gibson asked me – I can’t remember the context – what I thought I was accomplishing as a medical journalist. Without thinking, I immediately responded that I had many friends who thought I was providing cheap entertainment for hypochondriacs. Maybe they were right!)
AA: Since you graduated from seminary, did you ever become a practicing pastor?
Dr. Tim: After completing my medical training in Albany, New York, my wife Nancy and I moved to the Boston area for my first job as Director for Emergency Services at Union Hospital in Lynn. We lived in Topsfield (at 25 Parsonage Lane!) and discovered that a newly formed Covenant Church was nearby in Peabody Massachusetts – and the pastor was George Elia, a good friend from our Chicago days. We started attending and have been members for over 45 years. With George’s suggestion and encouragement, I received my ordination at the 1976 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church and became a part of the pastoral staff at Peabody. Previously, in Pietisten I wrote about my discomfort in being called a “Christian” with all the negative political and ideological connotations now associated with that appellation. I prefer to be called ‘a follower of Jesus’ as defined in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25, in which Jesus commends his disciples because, among other gracious acts, “they saw me sick and visited me.” My title at the Peabody Covenant Church is “Assisting Minister,” which I interpret as a divine calling to
assist people, especially the sick, in finding appropriate care for various medical and personal challenges.
AA: I recall reading that Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor of ABC, referred to you as “the dispenser of medical advice and a balm to the soul for the entire news team,” and that you were a pastor-in-residence for personnel who had special needs, such as Peter Jennings, who with assistance from you and others at ABC, battled courageously, but unsuccessfully against cancer. What is your response to Koppel’s assessment?
Dr. Tim: Right from the beginning of my career at ABC, I was very open about my religious beliefs and the fact that I was an ordained minister. Very quickly I became the unofficial “chaplain” in the news division. I had the “blessed” opportunity to help colleagues find appropriate medical or spiritual care for themselves and family members. I use the
word “blessed” very deliberately because almost always I was the one blessed by the opportunity to be of help, to be a minister.
AA: In 1975 you published a book entitled “Doctor!: What you should know about health care before you call a physician.” I wonder if you regretted that bit of advice because many of us slightly parsimonious opportunists took you seriously and beleaguered you for “free” diagnosis and treatments for a variety of imaginary or real ailments! My experience is that you were always extremely accommodating.
Dr. Tim: In addition to that book, I co-authored/edited several Harvard Medical School manuscripts aimed at the general public. And, yes, I often received calls and letters from the public regarding medical problems. Some we answered with form letters but whenever the situation appeared critical, I would respond personally and try to help the individual find appropriate care. I am not going to pretend that I always enjoying doing so — especially with total strangers. But I always felt an obligation to do so “as a follower of Jesus.”
AA: What other books did you write?
Dr. Tim: The two books that meant the most to me personally were “Let’s Talk” and “Finding God in the Questions.”
“Let’s Talk” was a series of letters (Zondervan, 1992) between myself and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop on the subjects of abortion, euthanasia, AIDS, and health care. By that time “Chick Coop” – as his friends called him – and I had become close friends even though we differed dramatically on almost every social and theological issue. So we decided to exchange opinions on those four controversial topics in a very civil and respectful way via letters. Hence, the name of the book.
“Finding God in the Questions” (InterVarsity, 2004) was a much more personal book about my own spiritual pilgrimage. I wrote the book in snatches of time over a two year period and really agonized over what to say about various and unusually controversial topics. Some of my colleagues at ABC tried to dissuade me from publishing the book, fearful it would “tarnish” my image as a medical doctor and a scientist. But I am forever grateful I did because of the huge response I received in personal letters from readers, many of whom were total strangers but who “poured out their hearts” about the painful struggles in their own journeys.
AA: You wrote and talked a lot about physicians, but were you ever a practitioner of that art/science?
Dr. Tim: As mentioned above, my first job after completing my training was as an emergency room doctor in Lynn, Massachusetts. I did that full time for about five years before becoming increasingly side-tracked into part-time television and writing activities. I could have gladly done ER work for the rest of my life – I think – because I found the variety and intensity of ER practice very fulfilling. Those years were also an amazing sociological education because, then and now, the ER is the “court of last resort” for people with problems no one else will take on. Given that literally we could not turn away anyone who came through our doors, I saw and experienced first hand – and often for the first time in my privileged, heretofore sheltered life – the incredibly difficult problems faced by so many in our society. It was an education that served me well throughout my medical and editorial career.
Medical Editor for ABC
AA: Dr. Tim, perhaps you remember taking my wife Karen and I on a boat ride from your and Nancy’s home in Marblehead, Massachusetts to the quaint, fishing village of Gloucester. One of the things that impressed us was the way almost everyone we met on the street or in the shops addressed you by asking the same question: “Aren’t you the doctor who is on 20/20 – Good Morning America – Nightline?”
Such recognition comes with television exposure which you achieved as being the medical editor for ABC. Of course, you didn’t start at the top. Can you share with us your journey and whether you consider that journey providential?
Dr. Tim: As I look back on the long series of decisions and opportunities in my life between graduating from North Park Junior College in 1956 and becoming the medical editor for ABC News in 1984, I am absolutely astounded at how “lucky” I was. I wish I felt comfortable using the word “providential” to describe that “good luck,” but that would require me (as a logical scientist) to believe that God is also responsible for the terrible and tragic events in so many other lives – and I can’t. I do believe that God has created a world in which our decisions have consequences, but that is far different than saying God determines and directs the detailed path of our daily lives. It would be comforting to believe that, but for me the evidence does not add up. I know “we see through a glass darkly” and I look forward to a clear view some day.
AA: What are your plans for the future, professionally and personally?
Dr. Tim: Professionally, I retired from ABC News in 2010 and from the local Boston ABC station in 2012, after being their part-time medical editor for 40 years. I am now listed as “Senior Medical Contributor” for ABC. The senior label is certainly appropriate now that I have become an octogenarian! And in fulfilling the “contributor” role I do a Medical Minute five nights a week at home for 200 ABC affiliate stations. Here’s what happens. ABC sends me a topic and some research and a first draft about something current in medical news. After my editing, I record the script in my kitchen using a special mike and computer app and send it as an e-mail file to the news department in New York where they add picture to my voice and ship it out to all the ABC stations around the country.
AA: Tim, thanks immensely for sharing some of your adventuresome life narrative with myself and the readers of Pietisten. We look forward to an epilogue or two about you, your wife Nancy and your entire family in the future. God bless.