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Jack Nelson: A newsman's newsman

The Pulitzer Prize-winning son of the Deep South ran The Times' Washington bureau like the investigative reporter he always was.

October 25, 2009|DOYLE McMANUS

WRITING FROM WASHINGTON — My colleague, Jack Nelson, believed in old-fashioned virtues: Get your facts straight. Check them, and check them again. Don't be afraid to cross swords with the powerful. Above all, break news whenever you can.

Jack, who died Wednesday at 80, played various roles during his 54-year career. He was a political analyst, a television pundit, a manager who led The Times' Washington bureau when it had more than 40 journalists. But he described himself first as a reporter, and that was the job he saw as most important to both the newspaper and the public it served.

Whenever one of his reporters asked what he should be working on, Jack usually had the same Delphic answer: "Go out and break some news." After decades of experience, he usually had a specific story in mind, and sources to share as well. But he didn't object if a reporter chose a different subject -- as long as he or she broke some news.

Jack maintained that the main thing people want from newspapers is facts -- facts they didn't know before, especially facts somebody didn't want them to know. Jack was tolerant of opinion writers, he respected analysis writers, and he even admired a feature writer or two. But at bottom, he believed the only compelling reason to be a reporter was to reveal hidden facts.

That's how he first made his name at the Biloxi Daily Herald on Mississippi's then-untamed Gulf Coast. A cub reporter straight out of high school, he was hired to write about sports; instead, at 19, he began exposing illicit gambling operations. In one story, he reported running into Biloxi's mayor and chief of police at an Elks lodge full of illegal slot machines; off-the-books gambling was so commonplace at the time that the officials were stunned to find their names in the newspaper.

Breaking news was also how Jack won his Pulitzer Prize at the Atlanta Constitution in 1960, revealing that a Georgia state mental hospital was allowing nurses to perform major surgery on inmates when doctors were absent. And it was how he made a mark when he joined The Times to report on the South. When police opened fire on student protesters at predominantly black Orangeburg (S.C.) State College in 1968, officials said they had fired in self-defense -- but Jack persuaded emergency room doctors to show him medical records showing that several of the students had been shot in the back, and some in the soles of their feet.

It was much the same when he moved to the Washington bureau of The Times in 1970, first with his own reporting on the Watergate scandal and abuses of power by the FBI, then by building the bureau into an investigative powerhouse.

Jack grew up poor in the Deep South and was proud of it. I once heard him debate an old friend, Atlanta Constitution columnist Lee May, on whose childhood had been more deprived -- a comically heated argument about who had endured the leakiest tin roof and the longest time without shoes. "We were poor but we didn't know it," Jack said.

Paradoxically or not, his hardscrabble background -- plus his experience unearthing official corruption -- made him fearless in Washington. He knew that inside a senator's tailored suit and expensive haircut was often a former county commissioner who might have cut a corner or two.

That outsider attitude suited his role as Washington bureau chief of The Times, a newspaper that, no matter how big and successful it became, was unlikely to be a Washington politician's first choice for leaks -- if only because most of its readers were 3,000 miles away. Jack turned that apparent handicap into a virtue: If politicians weren't doing favors for us, we'd be less likely to feel obligated to do any for them. If The Times broke news, he reasoned, it wouldn't matter that its printing presses were 3,000 miles away; people in Washington would have to pay attention. That calculation turned out to be right.

Jack's interviewing style was unshorn, direct and -- when he talked to politicians -- about an inch short of bullying. He asked tough questions without apology and made it clear that he expected direct answers. As a technique, amazingly, it often worked. He often persuaded subjects to disclose facts that weren't always in their own interest.

An example was his biggest scoop during Watergate. Agents working for the reelection campaign of President Nixon had broken into the offices of the Democratic National Committee to plant eavesdropping devices connected to tape recorders. Jack persuaded the man in charge of monitoring the tapes and delivering them to the Nixon campaign to give him an on-the-record interview. It was the first newspaper story with a non-anonymous source that tied the Watergate burglary directly to the president's campaign.

Jack was a Washington bureau chief in a mold that is increasingly rare: An investigative reporter who didn't want to be a pundit or an editor, much less an executive. His greatest joy was the pursuit of a good story.

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