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Jack Nelson, 80

Jack Nelson, 80; Pulitzer-winning L.A. Times reporter

FILE - This Nov. 29, 1972 file photo shows Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau writer Jack Nelson. An associate of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson said Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 that he died Wednesday morning at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 80. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - This Nov. 29, 1972 file photo shows Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau writer Jack Nelson. An associate of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson said Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 that he died Wednesday morning at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 80. (AP Photo/File) (AP)

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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 headquarters.

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 State University.

"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.


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