Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporter Jack Nelson: “Someone Who Resorted to the Tricks of the Journalism Trade”

By Jack Limpert

Scoop, a memoir by Jack Nelson, is packed with stories showing an award-winning reporter at work.  He starts by describing his growing up poor in the 1930s and at age six going door-to-door selling magazines, suggesting that it helped make him a good reporter: “Making a sale was as big a thrill for me as getting a scoop would be later on. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time how much the two professions had in common. Both required working long, hard hours, getting out and meeting people, and establishing personal rapport. If it was a hard sell—whether to convince someone to buy a product or persuading them to provide information—you had to gain people’s confidence, sometimes acting friendlier than you really felt.”

Those who knew Jack might smile at the image of his acting friendlier than he really felt. Gene Roberts, also a great Southern journalist and Jack’s friend, is likely to describe the Nelson reporting style as more attack dog than friendly persuader. In a bookstore conversation about Scoop, Roberts painted a picture of Jack as a tough, relentless reporter, not at all hesitant to poke his finger in your face and demand some answers.

During World War Two, Jack’s family moved to Mississippi when his father joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. After high school Jack got his start as an 18-year-old reporter at the Biloxi Herald. Then in 1952, at age 23, he went to the Atlanta Constitution and in 1962 he won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for his expose of conditions at a state mental hospital. In 1965, Jack was hired by the Los Angeles Times to open an Atlanta bureau to improve that paper’s civil rights coverage, and many of the book’s best stories come out of that period.

Roberts points to an anecdote in the book that showed Jack’s get-the-story attitude.  In South Carolina in 1968, three students at a black college were killed by state troopers during a civil rights protest. The governor defended the state  troopers, saying they were trying to defend life and property,  but many journalists and others were skeptical that college students had fired at heavily armed state troopers. Nelson flew to South Carolina to check out the story. He first wanted to know just how the 27 students were wounded and three were  killed.

“Arriving in Orangeburg, I drove immediately to the Orangeburg Regional Hospital where 27 wounded students were being treated. I walked into the office of Phil Mabry, the hospital’s administrator, shook hands with him, identified myself as being from the Atlanta bureau, and in a businesslike manner said I was there to examine the medical records of the wounded students. He said he would like to help if he could.

“The Atlanta bureau I mentioned was of course an office of the Los Angeles Times, but the way Mabry quickly offered to help, he probably thought I was talking about the Atlanta office of the FBI, and I didn’t disabuse him of that notion.”

The book also includes LA Times reporter Ron Ostrow describing Nelson at work in early 1970s Washington:

“At the time, the Washington bureau was located on the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. That gave it a commanding view of the area in front of the White House and the Old Executive Office Building where many of the protests against the Vietnam War were staged.

“One day, police instituted a heavy-handed crackdown on the large crowd of protesters, and the action was easily visible out of the bureau’s floor-to-ceiling windows on the seventh floor. Jack, still a relatively new reporter in the bureau, grabbed a notebook and headed for the door.

“Why are you going down there? You could see everything from up here,” a colleague shouted.

“No,” Jack shouted back. “You can’t see the badge numbers from up here.”

In 1975, Jack became head of the Washington bureau of the LA Times. He did battle with everyone from FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to the White House, and he became known nationally as a plain-speaking panelist on the PBS show Washington Week in Review. He ran the bureau until 1996, retiring from the paper in 2001 and going on to do some teaching at USC and research at Harvard. After Jack died in 2009, his wife Barbara Matusow took his partially completed memoir, filled in some gaps, and got Scoop published by the University of Mississippi Press.

In the book, Jack admits,  “I guess I was what you might call an operator—someone who resorted to the tricks of the journalistic trade.” But, he adds, “If I had to push the envelop a bit to make a sale, say cozying up to a source to get a document, I believed the end was important enough to justify the means. But pushing the envelope never involved breaking my word, burning a source, or stretching the facts.”

A postscript: Jack Nelson’s “I’m from the Atlanta bureau” story is echoed by former Washingtonian writer Chuck Conconi, who in the 1960s got his start working for the City News Bureau in Chicago. He says one often-used bureau tactic was when calling the family of someone caught up in a big story, he’d do it from a pay phone in a police station, saying, “This is Chuck Conconi calling from the 23rd precinct station. I need some information…”


  1. I much enjoyed Karl Fleming’s SON OF THE ROUGH SOUTH. Read it a couple of times. I’ll look for the Nelson book.

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