RIP, Jack Nelson; Editor Didn't Always Favor Digging Out 'Hidden Facts'

The Washington Post warmly remembered longtime Los Angeles Times reporter and Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson in a Thursday obituary headlined "L.A. Times reporter was driven by his conscience." Nelson was hailed by many for courageous reporting of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The Post’s Patricia Sullivan pulled this tribute from the Associated Press:

"He maintained that the main thing people want from newspapers is facts -- facts they didn't know before, and preferably facts that somebody didn't want them to know. Jack was tolerant of opinion writers; he respected analysis writers, and he even admired one or two feature writers. But he believed the only good reason to be a reporter was to reveal hidden facts and bring them to light."

But that’s not entirely true. Nelson didn’t support revealing hidden facts when his own newspaper dug into Bill Clinton’s use of Arkansas state troopers for sexual conquests. He suggested "right wingers" were wrong to suggest he was so opposed to it that he threatened to resign. But he clearly disliked the story, and had wanted to subject the troopers to polygraph tests:

"The American Spectator broke the story...because they’re a very right-wing ideological publication....What really happened was there was a conspiracy, in my opinion, by right-wingers, including some right-wing journalists, to press this newspaper [the Los Angeles Times] into running this story before it was ready to, trying to get it out, and so they spread the rumor all around town that I had threatened to resign if it did run...I know one of the guys who was spreading it: Brit Hume of ABC, who covers the White House, who writes for The American Spectator. I know there’s another conservative journalist who covers the White House, Fred Barnes, who’s on the editorial board of The American Spectator."
— Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson on PBS’ Washington Week in Review, December 24, 1993.

It’s long forgotten now, but Nelson also disliked ABC gumshoe Brian Ross looking into scandal around Clinton Labor Secretary Alexis Herman:

"Brian Ross, the ABC person in there, according to this New York Times story, both went to this fellow and interviewed him and then took him to the Justice Department to lodge his complaint in order to get an independent counsel, then went on the air, with an exclusive story and I thought, I saw his account on ABC, I thought in a very prosecutorial manner reported this thing. I think that raises certain questions, if a reporter actually brings about an investigation himself, goes to the Justice Department, takes the complaint and then goes on the air and has an exclusive story. I think it raises a question of whether he’s personally involved in it, and whether he should have done that."
— Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson on businessman Laurent Yene’s charges against Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, January 16, 1998.

Nelson regularly unloaded liberal comments on the PBS Friday night roundtable. Here was Nelson on the weekend of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings:

"I've been in this town for 21 years, and they play a vicious brand of politics in Washington. Washington can be a mean town. This was as vicious a fight as I've ever seen except it was totally one-sided....When you had Alan Simpson standing up there like Joe McCarthy, reaching in his pockets and saying `I'm getting stuff through faxes, and all over the country,' he sounded just like Joe McCarthy, let's face it. And you had Arlen Specter, who was a prosecutor at one time, saying that she committed perjury, when probably you couldn't find another prosecutor in the country that would tell you that she had committed perjury."
-- Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings on Washington Week in Review, October 18, 1991.

Nelson was considered at one point for the liberal chair at CNN's Crossfire, but he didn't get the job. He clearly favored Jimmy Carter, as you can see from this soundbite:

"The more people see of this Jimmy Carter, the more likely they are to warm to him. Negative feelings toward Carter's personality clouded the public's perception of his White House achievements. A more open Jimmy Carter may lead to a more objective assessment of his presidency."
-- Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson in Jimmy Carter: Speaking Out on PBS January 4, 1991.

We also reported in our newsletter MediaWatch that over the December 17, 1995 headline "Carter, Driven to Do Good, Looks to Bosnia Quagmire," Nelson wrote that in 1980, Carter "immediately went back to what he had done much of his life; pursuing lost and neglected causes with a missionary's zeal....anyone who has followed his career closely can understand why he has legions of admirers here and abroad who view him not as self-absorbed but as a dedicated political leader who is driven by moral principles and who devotes his life to resolving conflicts and helping the unfortunate."

That would be Nelson "following his conscience." It's probably not surprising that Nelson didn't think liberal bias was a problem:

"When you're talking about pure journalists, I mean reporters, when you're talking about reporters, not columnists, I don't think there's any liberal bias. I don't think there really ever has been." -- Los Angeles Times Senior Washington correspondent Jack Nelson on CNBC's Politics '96, March 9, 1996.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis