The making of a great reporter

Posted: January 20, 2013


The Evolution of a Southern Reporter

By Jack Nelson

Edited by Barbara Matusow, with an introduction by Hank Klibanoff

University of Mississippi Press. 208 pp. $26

Jack Nelson was one of the preeminent reporters of the second half of the 20th century - a father of modern investigative journalism who fearlessly chronicled the civil rights movement, jousted with the FBI and its increasingly diabolical director J. Edgar Hoover, and broke one of the major stories on Watergate that linked the burglary "to the heart of the Nixon reelection campaign," as David Halberstam wrote in his media history, The Powers That Be.

In Nelson's latter years, when he presided over the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, he was a well-connected grandee of the capital press corps with a regular seat on Washington Week in Review.

Scoop - the name hung on him as an energetic teen reporter in Biloxi, Miss. - is Nelson's memoir, or rather the truncated first draft of his memoir. Alas, he died at age 80 in 2009 before he had completed his manuscript, and the text is fleshed out with excerpts from his personal papers, a too-brief epilogue on his important Washington years by a former colleague, an afterword by his wife, Barbara Matusow, herself an accomplished journalist, and a graceful and affectionate foreword by Hank Klibanoff, the coauthor with former Inquirer executive editor Gene Roberts of The Race Beat, the authoritative account of the press and the civil rights movement.

Much of the historical ground Scoop covers is better told in other works - by Halberstam, by former Inquirer writer and editor Klibanoff and Roberts (who covered the civil rights movement for the New York Times), and by Nelson himself in his contemporaneous reporting and two books about tumultuous events in 1968 that are worth reading as companion volumes.

Terror in the Night is a gripping account of how two Ku Klux Klan members were gunned down in a sting operation orchestrated by the FBI and the Meridian, Miss., police. The operation was financed by the local Jewish community, which was increasingly being targeted by the Klan. A second Nelson book, The Orangeburg Massacre, tells how South Carolina state troopers fatally shot three black college students in the back, and wounded 20 others during a night-time civil rights rally.

The hallmark of Nelson's work was meticulous documentation, careful source cultivation, and above all, fidelity to the story, no matter what the consequences. The latter trait cost him a few sources, notably in the FBI, who couldn't bear the bitter sting of truth, but also burnished his reputation for integrity.

Scoop is most useful for the insight it provides into Nelson: how he became such a driven reporter, so focused on his stories that he wrecked his first marriage, so willing to stand up for right in the face of threatened and actual violence, so tenacious a questioner of authority.

Nelson grew up poor during the Depression in rural Alabama and Georgia before landing in Biloxi for high school. His mother was a voracious reader with strong moral standards, and something of an outsider - an Irish Catholic at a time when Catholics were targeted by the Klan. His father drank too much, failed in business, but redeemed himself as a soldier during World War II, only to be run over by a car at age 38. "In retrospect," Nelson acknowledges, "it's pretty clear I was deeply upset by Daddy's death."

Nelson channeled his emotions into boxing and playing football - a scrawny quarterback, who though regularly trampled by bigger foes, always got back up. His impressed athletic director remarked, "You sure must have strong bones." Indeed. Forced to be self-reliant from a young age, it's clear that Nelson the journalist was largely self-taught, adjusting his ethical compass as he watched his editors' missteps. In Biloxi, his editor was enmeshed in multiple conflicts of interest, and Nelson, knowing no better, at first emulated him, once sitting on a coroner's jury where he was pressured to fudge the verdict. That distasteful experience put him on the right path, as did his recognition that the police who were feeding him juicy stories on gamblers were also shaking them down.

When Nelson moved to the Atlanta Constitution, he soon incurred the wrath of Ralph McGill - otherwise sainted by generations of Southern writers for his columns decrying civil rights abuses - by writing critically about the interests of one of McGill's friends, a "glamorous blonde." He was only 28, but he wouldn't back down from a good story.

By his actions, Nelson helped write the book on how a modern reporter should behave, as a truth-teller not beholden to any special interests, but dedicated to serving the public good and shedding light on newsworthy information that powerful interests seek to suppress. If not the press, who else will do it?

America has a tradition of distinguished investigative reporting, stretching back to Ida Tarbell and her exposé of Standard Oil in the early 1900s. But that sort of exhaustive reporting had atrophied by the time Nelson began practicing his craft in the late 1940s. Too many editors were conflicted like his boss in Biloxi or sought to intervene and quash stories on behalf of friends, as did McGill. What passed for investigative reporting was often a glorified cops-and-robbers story, or a columnist who blended fact, rumor, and innuendo in a sensational package.

Nelson and other great reporters of the era - notably Bill Lambert at Life Magazine - recognized that careful, responsible reporting was paramount, could withstand any scrutiny, and often led to beneficial change. A perfect example is Nelson's Pulitzer Prize-winning stories at the Constitution that exposed shocking abuses at Milledgeville Central State Hospital for the mentally ill. Prisoners were being experimented on without consent, nurses were performing major surgery, and on-duty doctors were abusing drugs and alcohol. Wholesale reforms resulted.

"I was scrupulous about documenting everything and learned early to zero in on records," Nelson writes. "Patience has never been one of my virtues and there's nothing more tedious than poring through files hour after hour. But when you get your hands on the right record, you have a piece of evidence that can't be denied."

Today, galvanic changes in the media have humbled great newspapers, like the L.A. Times, newly emerged from bankruptcy. But in this Internet era of instant news, the best stories are often those that are hidden from public view. They cannot be googled or crowdsourced. They can only be unearthed by diligent reporters like Jack Nelson, working sources and getting their hands on "the right record."

Mike Leary, a reporter and editor at The Inquirer for three decades, is the editor of the San Antonio Express-News.

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