Jack Nelson, retired Washington Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times and a co-founder in 1970 of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, died early this morning of pancreatic cancer. He celebrated his 80th birthday on Oct. 11.
Nelson was one of 30 Washington and New York journalists who met in March 1970 at Georgetown University’s law library out of concern about a federal grand jury subpoena served on New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell. After the three-hour meeting, Nelson and two New York Times reporters, Fred Graham and the late J. Anthony Lukas, went to the New York Times’ Washington Bureau, where they coined the organization’s name. Lukas wrote a press release expressing the group’s concern over subpoenas served on reporters. Nelson and Graham phoned the release to the wire services and the committee was in business.
“Jack had the kind of scrappy good judgment that made him a natural leader among reporters,” said Graham, now senior editor for In Session (formerly Court TV). “He was fearless, but careful and respectful toward the subjects of his reporting. That gave him respect among journalists and the public, which was crucial when he took the lead in the creation of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.”
Over the past 40 years, the Reporters Committee has become a national clearinghouse for information and legal help for reporters all over the country. “Jack has been a guiding force and an inspiration for the Reporters Committee from the very start,” said Reporters Committee Chairman and Legal Times correspondent Tony Mauro. “He knew and cherished the importance of a strong and fearless press, and helped the Reporters Committee become strong as well.”
In 1974, Nelson authored “Captive Voices,” a book published by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial about state of high school journalism. His work led to the creation of a special affiliated project of the Reporters Committee to aid student journalists called the Student Press Law Center. Now an independent group that shares office space with the Reporters Committee, the Student Press Law Center helps thousands of high school and college journalists each year.
Nelson served on the Reporters Committee’s steering committee for 25 years. His resignation from the committee in 1995 coincided with his retirement as the Times’ Bureau chief. In 1997, the Reporters Committee embarked on a capital fund raising campaign and created an endowed fellowship in his honor. The Jack Nelson Freedom of Information Fellowship goes each year to an aspiring media lawyer. To date, 12 newly minted lawyers have each spent a year at the Reporters Committee helping reporters across the country with federal, state and local open meeting and open records problems.
“Although Jack’s formal relationship with the Reporters Committee ended in 1995, he stayed involved,” said Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “He was always available for advice, to make a phone call on our behalf, or to take our young lawyers out to lunch. He showed us what it meant to be a leader.”
Nelson was an Alabama native. As a young reporter, he worked for the Biloxi (Miss.) Daily Herald from 1947-51 and for the Atlanta Constitution from 1952-65. His stories in the Constitution about Georgia’s Milledgeville State Hospital, then the world’s largest mental institution, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 1960, as well as the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service. In 1965, he joined the staff of the Los Angeles Times as its Atlanta Bureau chief and spent several years covering the civil rights movement. The Times sent him to Washington, D.C., in 1970 and he became Washington Bureau Chief in 1975.
Nelson graduated from Georgia State University and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1961-62.
The Reporters Committee sends condolences to his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow, who has attended countless fund raisers and planning meetings, and graciously supported Jack’s love of the Reporters Committee for more than 35 years.