Jack Nelson, 80
L.A. Times reporter was driven by his conscience
By Patricia Sullivan
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Jack Nelson, 80, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who
covered the civil rights movement in the South during the 1950s and
1960s, the Watergate scandal in the 1970s and national politics until
2001, died Oct. 21 at his home in Bethesda. He had pancreatic cancer.
Mr. Nelson became one of the best-known newspapermen in Washington
thanks to his two decades as the bureau chief for the Los Angeles
Times and his weekly appearances on the PBS show formerly known as
"Washington Week in Review." He was also a co-founder in 1970 of the
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
He rose to prominence while working for the Atlanta Constitution when
his series of articles on mental institutions in Georgia received the
1960 Pulitzer for local reporting. His award-winning investigation of
malpractice at a Georgia state mental hospital showed nurses
operating on patients and doctors using experimental drugs on them.
His skill in reporting on the civil rights movement later in the
1960s for the Times made him "the most source-connected reporter in
the South since Claude Sitton [of the New York Times] by
investigating tips and responding quickly to breaking news," wrote
Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in "The Race Beat" (2006), their
Pulitzer-winning history of the media coverage of the civil rights movement.
Mr. Nelson broke important stories during the Watergate scandal,
including an exclusive interview with Alfred Baldwin, a former FBI
agent who kept logs of wiretaps for the Watergate conspirators and
acted as a lookout during the burglary of the Democratic national
As the Los Angeles Times built its national reputation, Mr. Nelson
told Time magazine in 1991 that the Washington bureau he led was too
often overlooked in the nation's capital. Reporters in the
then-57-person Washington bureau often scooped competitors because of
their initiative, he said, as well as deadlines that were three hours
later than those of East Coast dailies.
Doyle McManus, Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times, told
the Associated Press: "He maintained that the main thing people want
from newspapers is facts -- facts they didn't know before, and
preferably facts that somebody didn't want them to know. Jack was
tolerant of opinion writers; he respected analysis writers, and he
even admired one or two feature writers. But he believed the only
good reason to be a reporter was to reveal hidden facts and bring
them to light."
The travails of the news business in the 21st century irked him. In
2008, seven years after he retired, Mr. Nelson joined a high-profile
class-action federal lawsuit against Chicago billionaire Sam Zell.
The real estate speculator in 2007 took control of the Tribune Co.,
which owns the Los Angeles paper, in a controversial deal that has
mired the company in more than $13 billion of debt.
Mr. Nelson and other Times alumni accused Zell of breaches of
fiduciary duty, conflicts of interest and other violations of the law
that safeguards the proper handling of such retirement benefits as
pensions and trusts. Zell called the allegations frivolous and
unfounded; the case is pending.
A few months later, the Times' storied Washington bureau was merged
with the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.
Chronicled racism's evils
John Howard Nelson was born Oct. 11, 1929, in Talladega, Ala., and
raised in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Before graduating from
high school, he worked as reporter at the Biloxi Daily Herald, then
served in the Army as a sergeant from 1949 through 1951. After his
discharge, he joined the Atlanta Constitution while attending George
"The evil inflicted on blacks in the South where I was born and grew
up was almost unbelievable. As journalists, we all felt a deep
self-consciousness about needing to address what we saw," he said in
an interview with the Newseum. Those were sentiments he often
repeated to other interviewers.
During his first year at the Atlanta paper, he wrote a devastating
exposé of vice and corruption in Hinesville, Ga. A grand jury
indicted 44 of the town's leading residents, so many that when Mr.
Nelson arrived to cover the legal proceedings, he was mobbed,
spread-eagled across the hood of a car by a deputy sheriff while the
locals yelled for blood.
Mr. Nelson appealed to a passing judge to arrest his attacker, but
the judge refused to intervene. A police officer saved him from
lynching, but not from eventual arrest by vengeful deputies, who
charged him with, among other things, rape. The charges were later dropped.
Mr. Nelson covered the arrival of federal troops sent to enforce
desegregation of the schools in Little Rock, but he said it wasn't
until 1965, when he became the Atlanta bureau chief for the Times,
that he began to seriously cover the civil rights movement.
He was harassed and threatened by racists but never assaulted, as
some other reporters were. That was perhaps because of his Southern
accent, crew-cut hair and his habit of dressing in a business suit,
creating an appearance that he put to his advantage when violence
broke out in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1968. Three students were killed
and two dozen wounded when more than 100 state troopers, National
Guardsmen and local police fired on students protesting a racially
segregated bowling alley.
Mr. Nelson went straight to the local hospital, Roberts and Klibanoff
reported in their book, and introduced himself as "Nelson, with the
Atlanta bureau. I've come to see the medical records." Those records
proved that 16 students had been shot in the back and others wounded
on the soles of their feet. The FBI began to investigate, but Mr.
Nelson didn't leave the story there. He wrote that the federal agents
were eating, drinking and sharing hotel rooms with the state troopers
they were investigating.
In 1970, Mr. Nelson moved to Washington as an investigative reporter
for the Times. He dug into the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who
were suspects in nine slayings and 300 assaults and bombings in 1968.
He also disclosed that the FBI, frustrated by its inability to catch
the most elusive bomber, paid and intimidated two Klan leaders to
order the bomber to dynamite the home of a Jewish merchant in
Meridian, Miss. The setup went awry. An accomplice was killed and the
would-be bomber wounded after a wild escape attempt.
Although FBI agents had been among his best sources, Mr. Nelson
became a persona non grata at the agency. Longtime Director J. Edgar
Hoover sought to have him fired. In 1971, at a Washington awards
banquet, Hoover told The Washington Post's Sally Quinn: "I view Jack
Anderson as the top scavenger of all columnists. Jack Nelson is next
to a skunk."
Mr. Nelson was forthright in his admiration of the Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr., telling a Syracuse University oral history project
interviewer in 2004 that King was "the greatest orator I ever covered
in over 50 years of reporting and he inspired people."
"A reporter likes to pride himself on being as objective as he can,
and . . . tell both sides of the story," he said. "Well, there's
hardly two sides to a story of a man being denied the basic right to
vote. I mean, where do you get the other side? . . . There's no two
sides to a story of a lynching, a lynching is a lynching."
Without the media, the 1965 voting rights act or the 1964 public
accommodations act would not have passed, he said. "We didn't do as
well as we could've done, but in a sense it was one of the finest
hours of American press," he said.
Mr. Nelson became the Times' bureau chief in 1975, holding that post
until 1995, when he became chief Washington correspondent for the newspaper.
In 1970, Mr. Nelson was one of 13 Washington and New York journalists
who met at Georgetown University's law library out of concern about a
federal grand jury subpoena served on New York Times reporter Earl
Caldwell. After the three-hour meeting, Nelson and two then-New York
Times reporters, Fred Graham and J. Anthony Lukas, coined the name of
the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, and distributed
a press release to news wire services, launching the group. Over the
past 40 years, the Reporters Committee has become a national
clearinghouse for information and legal help for reporters all over
Mr. Nelson was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University in 1961. Among
his books were "Terror in the Night: The Klan's Campaign Against the
Jews" (1993), "The Censors and the Schools" (1963) with Gene Roberts,
"The Orangeburg Massacre" (1970) with Jack Bass and "The FBI and the
Berrigans" (1973) with Ronald J. Ostrow. His 1974 book "Captive
Voices," about the state of high school journalism, led to the
creation of the Student Press Law Center.
His marriage to Virginia Dare Dickinson ended in divorce. A son from
that marriage, Steven H. Nelson, died in the 1980s.
Survivors include his wife of 34 years, Barbara Joan Matusow; two
children from his first marriage, Karen Arnold of Grayson, Ga., and
John M. "Mike" Nelson of Lilburn, Ga.; a brother; a sister; six
grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.