Inside Media: Jack Nelson

August 30, 2008

Guest: Jack Nelson

Journalists are taught to strive for a balance in their reporting. But decades ago, it was tough for Jack Nelson to "find the other side of the story," while covering the brutality committed against blacks in the Deep South.

Nelson, the longtime Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, reported on several turbulent moments of the civil rights era, first with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and later with the Times. The most notable were the "Little Rock Nine's" integration of Central High School, the Orangeburg Massacre, and the Ku Klux Klan's killing of three civil rights workers — the premise for the 1988 film "Mississippi Burning."

"The evil inflicted on blacks in the South where I was born and grew up was almost unbelievable. As journalists, we all felt a deep self-consciousness about needing to address what we saw," the Pulitzer Prize winner said.

The press was not invulnerable to physical attacks either.

"We occasionally got assaulted, not in a very serious way," according to Nelson. "There were some reporters who got beaten up. We were certainly not welcomed in the white communities, because they knew we were going to expose what was [happening]."

While most of the southern newspapers advocated segregation, Nelson pointed out that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Ralph McGill and Hodding Carter of the Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville, Miss., wrote editorials critical of the racial intolerance proliferating throughout the South.

He also praised The New York Times.

"When the civil rights movement really got going, there was only one major paper in the country who covered it, and that was The New York Times," he said.

Nelson sees Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama "as a historic figure now" and dismissed criticism that the press is covering him too much.

"Now there's talk about Obama fatigue. I don't think that's necessarily so. [Here's] someone who's likely to be the next president of the United States."

In terms of civil rights coverage, Nelson said the discrimination that occurs today is very subtle. "It's in the form of housing discrimination or maybe someone can't get a bank loan because they're black. So you're not in the promised land, but tremendous progress has been made."

"Inside Media," produced by the Newseum, is open to the public. Seating is on a space-available basis.

Related link: Remembering Jack Nelson

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