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 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.

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.

Reporters Committee

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 the country.

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.

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