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Jack Nelson Remembered Fondly As A Great Reporter

October 22, 2009

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Jack Nelson proved real investigative reporting and strong analytical skills about politics could produce a most remarkable journalist.   Americans who did not read The Atlanta Journal Constitution, or The Los Angeles Times knew Nelson by his reporting on programs such as “Washington Week In Review”.  As a teenager it was via PBS that I first became aware of this soft-spoken, and mighty sharp reporter.  He was from the ‘old-school’ where lots of shoe leather and a solid moral compass made for a conscientious reporter.  One of the famed moments of Jack Nelson’s career goes like this.

Even before Bloody Sunday, Nelson captured the tense atmosphere between civil rights activists and local law enforcement in the small town. 

After overhearing the county sheriff order his deputies to “get those niggers off the courthouse steps,” Nelson filed a story with the quote. 

“You can’t use the word ‘nigger’ in the L.A. Times,” an editor told the young reporter in an urgent phone call recounted in the award-winning 2006 book on the coverage of the civil rights movement, “The Race Beat.” 

Nelson fired back: “You mean you want me to quote [Sheriff] Jim Clark as saying, ‘Get those KNEE-GROES off the courthouse steps?’” 

Nelson got his way and would continue to offer vivid and deeply reported accounts of the racial violence taking place in the South, from the murder of white civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in Alabama to the killing of a group of black college students in South Carolina.

Nelson was also instrumental in the Watergate story.

As the Watergate scandal unfolded during President Nixon’s reelection drive, Nelson scored an exclusive interview with Alfred C. Baldwin III, an ex-FBI agent hired by White House operatives, who witnessed the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972. The stories resulting from Nelson’s interview with Baldwin were the first to link the burglary “right to the heart of the Nixon reelection campaign,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 media history, “The Powers That Be.”

When young people wish to become journalists, and wonder who they might model themselves after, they could do no better than looking to the life of Jack Nelson.   He was a reporter that made a difference.

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