Feature

Jack Nelson

The journalist who infuriated J. Edgar Hoover

Jack Nelson
1929–2009

Reporting in 1970 for the Los Angeles Times, Jack Nelson discovered that the FBI and police in Meridian, Miss., had shot two Ku Klux Klan members in a sting operation. Hoping to suppress the story, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover smeared Nelson as a drunk, but the piece nevertheless ran on Page 1. Two years later, Nelson reported on the FBI’s use of an agent provocateur in its investigation of Philip Berrigan and other peace activists known as the Harrisburg Seven. Hoover again sought without success to have Nelson fired. 

Born in Talladega, Ala., Nelson grew up in Biloxi, Miss., and after high school went to work for the Biloxi Daily Herald. After joining The Atlanta Constitution, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his series on Georgia’s Milledgeville Central State Hospital for the mentally ill, said the Los Angeles Times, exposing an array of abuses that included “nurses who were allowed to perform major surgery.” Five years later he opened the Atlanta bureau of the Times, and began covering the civil-rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala. He clashed with the Nixon administration in 1972, when he “scored an exclusive interview” with ex–FBI Agent Alfred C. Baldwin III, who had witnessed the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. In his interview with Nelson, Baldwin told about being recruited by ex–CIA Agent James McCord, meeting with G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt, and monitoring wiretaps on Democratic phones. Prosecutors persuaded Judge John J. Sirica to issue a gag order on the scoop, but the Times appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in its favor.

In 1975, Nelson became the Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau chief, and held the post until 1995, said The Washington Post. A newsman from the old school, Nelson used to say that while opinion writers have their place, the highest journalistic calling was to be a reporter, to reveal facts that those in power want hidden from the public.

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