A Passionate and Persistent Journalist
Scoop: Jack Nelson, The Evolution of a Southern Reporter
Edited by Barbara Matusow
University Press of Mississippi
208 pages; $26
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Something seemed quaint as I read through the late Jack Nelson's memoir.
Nelson, a near-legendary figure who died in 2009, was tracing his career as an investigative reporter in Mississippi, Georgia and Washington, D.C., a run of scandal-breaking that made him one of America's most respected and formidable journalists.
Early on, he describes his "series of five page-one articles" on vote fraud in south Georgia. Then he details "a series of six articles" on corruption in a Georgia college town.
Soon he's recalling a Los Angeles Times series "on page one for five consecutive days" exposing Jim Crow injustices in the South.
By then what seemed quaint was obvious: the regularity — once routine but now remarkable — with which newspapers small and large once devoted five parts here and six parts there to spotlighting local and regional corruption.
Nelson ended his career as the L.A. Times' prominent Washington bureau chief, distinguishing himself with coverage from Watergate to FBI exposés. But he built his career, and won his Pulitzer Prize, on rooting out corruption at the hometown level.
What makes this book most valuable isn't tales of celebrity journalism but the inspiration of Nelson's dogged — and dangerous — devotion to public service journalism in far-from-the-spotlight, grassroots America.
Like many reform-minded writers, Nelson grew up in gritty, middle class conditions. He was born in Talladega, Alabama, the month the stock market crashed in 1929. His father, "inclined to be pugnacious whether drunk or sober," died when Nelson was in high school.
His own personality — characterized by a winning way with people but a penchant for irritating authority — grew in part from his mistreatment by local police at age 15, "the first of many examples of abuse of police power...I was to encounter as a reporter over the next half century." Tellingly — because Nelson was a master of working sources — the detective who bullied him later became a source and dubbed Nelson "Scoop."
After high school and brief military service in the early 1950s, he was hired as a
reporter by the Biloxi Daily Herald. Later he turned down a clerk's job with the FBI to stay in journalism, at the Atlanta Constitution and later at the L.A. Times.
In an introduction to this book, veteran journalist Hank Klibanoff summarizes Nelson's "investigations of illegal gambling, liquor sales, prostitution, shakedowns, and corrupt cops" and notes that Nelson "routinely challenged the official line, and he did it armed with deeply reported facts."
I admired Nelson from the time I was a college student in South Carolina. I watched with wannabe awe as Nelson, along with the Charlotte Observer's Jack Bass, dug into the 1968 slaying by state troopers of three South Carolina State College students protesting a segregated bowling alley.
The case produced an often-told anecdote. Nelson arrived at the hospital where the wounded students were treated. He identified himself "as being from the Atlanta bureau, and..said I was there to examine the medical records... The Atlanta bureau I mentioned was of course an office of the Los Angeles Times, but the way [the hospital administrator] quickly offered to help, he probably thought I was talking about the Atlanta office of the FBI."
From those records Nelson learned that "at least 16 [students] were struck from the rear. Two of the three who were fatally injured were shot in the back."
"I never did anything I considered unethical," Nelson writes. "But looking back, I realize there were occasions when I walked a pretty fine line."
Nelson came across as a no-nonsense straight shooter, winning people's trust by taking them seriously, whether they were small-town sheriffs or national big shots.
He sprinkles this book with reporting tips, starting with his reliance on notarized affidavits from sources to help ward off libel suits. As a reporter who was "physically attacked twice...and threatened many times," Nelson often used a trick of cutting his notebooks in half so they could be concealed from hostile crowds.
Nelson died before completing this book, and his wife, Barbara Matusow, herself an accomplished journalist, finished the work. We are fortunate she did. "Scoop" is a good read and a primer about a passionate and persistent journalist who could be considered a model for a certain time: Anytime.