Sunday, November 8, 2009

You Can't Say That In The L.A. Times

As day leads on to day, and the years pile up, I experience a greater investment and interest in the obituary pages. Jack Nelson, 80, Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Washington, D.C., for over 20 of his 35 years with that newspaper, died recently at his home in Bethesda, Md.

Jack Nelson was a hard-hitting newspaper reporter of an old school before hairspray and endless television cable chatter impostored as news. Nonetheless, you may have seen him on the PBS Washington Week In Review, where he was a distinguished and regular fixture. Nelson was a news reporter’s news reporter when news reporters were not hard to find. Historic news he covered for The Los Angeles Times included Watergate (the break-in and the great fall), Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., the KKK, and the civil rights movement throughout the South.

One of his news reports quoted an Alabama county sheriff ordering his deputies: “Get those niggers off the courthouse steps.” When he dictated the story over the telephone, his editor told him that he could not use that word in the L.A. Times. Nelson responded, “You mean you want me to quote Sheriff Jim Clark as saying, ‘Get those KNEE-GROES off the courthouse steps?’” The quote was printed as Nelson filed it.

Jack Nelson recalled covering civil rights in the South in the 1960’s: "A reporter likes to pride himself on being as objective as he can, and tell both sides of the story. Well, there's hardly two sides to a story of a man being denied the basic right to vote. . . . There's no two sides to a story of a lynching. A lynching is a lynching."

Jack Nelson could be measured by his enemies. Alabama Governor George Wallace once pointed out Jack Nelson at a public rally as “an outside agitator” and called him by name. Notoriously legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to smear Nelson as having a drinking problem. "What they didn't realize is that you can't ruin a newspaperman by branding him a drunk," Nelson later laughed.

Eugene Patterson, Ralph McGill, and Jack Nelson, Pulitzer Prize winners all at The Atlanta Constitution in the 1960's--AJC Photo.

Nelson was born in Talladega, Ala., graduated from high school in Biloxi, Miss., and immediately talked his way onto the local newspaper as a sports reporter. In 1952, he began working for The Atlanta Constitution, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 1960 for his series of articles on Georgia's Milledgeville Central State Hospital for the mentally ill. The abuses he exposed included experimental treatments without patient consent, doctors on-duty under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and nurses performing major surgery.

As a very young person, I was privileged to breath the same air as Nelson, McGill, Patterson and other honorable and admirable journalists who worked in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution building at 10 Forsyth St.

My own enduring personal memory of Jack Nelson is an incident in which he invited a bully outside who had been trying to pick a fight with me at the Press Club bar. I had made every effort to avoid having the fight, because I was in fact in the bar under age and feared losing my job if I became involved in any such incident. Nelson, who barely even knew me but recognized my disadvantage, stepped in between me and the guy, who was a radio station disk jockey, and challenged him to pick on somebody his own age.

Copyright 2009 by William C. Cotter

Post Script:

 Jim Bentley  and Jeff Nesmith, two real journalists from the glory days of The Atlanta Constitution have written a definitive Jack Nelson tribute, the one that should have appeared on page one in Atlanta.  


J. Pascal said...

Nice obit on Jack Nelson. He was the type of reporter that made you want to be in the newspaper business. And, more importantly proud to be in it!

Paw Paw Bill said...



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