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Jack Nelson was a journalist

From the Fall 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. As I write this column, negotiations…

From the Fall 2009 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

As I write this column, negotiations between key lawmakers, media leaders and the White House appear to have resulted in agreement on compromise language for a federal shield law.

Protection for confidential sources and information was the impetus for a meeting in March 1970 that led to the formation of the Reporters Committee. If we get a bill passed, it will be a poignant moment. And it will be all the more so because co-founder Jack Nelson, who died Oct. 21, won’t be there to share it with us.

Jack was one of about 30 reporters who attended a meeting at Georgetown’s law school library on a Sunday afternoon to discuss how to combat the never-ending stream of subpoenas being served on reporters by state and federal prosecutors. (Read more about the early years here: As the Washington Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times, Jack had great sources and many folks in the government, particularly J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, wanted to know who they were. He was not alone.

The issue of source protection mobilized an entire generation of reporters.

In those days, reporters believed they had a First Amendment right to protect their sources. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Branzburg v. Hayes that they did not — at least not when a grand jury wanted the information. The Supreme Court invited states and Congress to pass statutes to provide such protection.

The media did well in the states. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws that apply to subpoenas filed in state courts. But they had a terrible time getting a federal statute. Over 40 years, Jack Nelson and others testified before numerous Congressional hearings, filed affidavits and took their case to the public. More than a few reporters went to jail to protect their sources.

Many of our founders have died. Others drifted away. Only InSession network senior editor Fred Graham has served on the steering committee without a break for 40 years.

Jack retired from our steering committee in 1995 at the same time he stepped down as bureau chief. Despite the many interested and deeply involved steering committee members, for the first 25 years, Jack was the “go to” guy every time anyone at the Reporters Committee needed a problem solved. Personnel issues? Jack took care of it. Declining revenues? Jack visited Charles Overby and Co. at the Freedom Forum, which resulted in our being their tenant at no cost for 10 years.

In 1997, the Reporters Committee honored Jack by creating an endowed legal fellowship in his name. The Jack Nelson fellow focuses on helping reporters from all over the country with issues involving state and federal open meetings and open records laws. A dozen young media lawyers started their careers as Jack Nelson legal fellows. He was always tickled pink to meet them.

Although his formal relationship with the Reporters Committee ended in the mid-1990s, Jack invited me to lunch shortly after I arrived at the Reporters Committee in January 1999. Just call if you need anything, he said. So I did. Over and over again.

In the past couple of years, as the push for a federal shield law looked like it might actually get somewhere, Jack was skeptical but excited. Although he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2008, he was still interested in the Reporters Committee’s future. I had lunch with Jack and his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow, on a sunny day late last summer. “Do you really think we’re finally going to get a shield law?” he asked. “How’s fund raising going? Is the bad economy affecting you? What are your biggest cases right now?”

Jack’s 80th birthday on Oct. 11 coincided with our annual “Barbecue with a View” fundraiser. Steering Committee member Chip Bok drew a cartoon birthday card that the barbecue guests signed and I delivered the next day. He was in hospice care by that point, but he loved the card and we spent more than an hour laughing and strategizing about the shield law and the Reporters Committee’s future.

“So you really think we’re going to get a shield law?” he asked.

Yes, Jack. I really think we are.