‘Scoop’ recalls Jack Nelson’s celebrated career in muckraking

Steve Weinberg / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution /


Published Jan 20, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

“Scoop: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter” by Jack Nelson, edited posthumously by Barbara Matusow (University Press of Mississippi, $26)

Born into humble circumstances in Talladega, Ala., in 1929 and later reared in Biloxi, Miss., Jack Nelson became a journalist by accident. He showed enough talent as a rookie reporter on small-town newspapers that in 1953 he received a job offer from The Atlanta Constitution. It was a big step up, and Nelson was elated.

During the rest of the decade, Nelson, fearless in the face of corrupt, powerful public officials, developed into one of the best investigative journalists in the South. By the time the Los Angeles Times established an Atlanta bureau in 1965 and hired Nelson to staff it, he had become a living legend. That legend would continue to grow until Nelson’s death in 2009.

Nelson’s memoir was only partly completed at the time of his death. Barbara Matusow, his widow, is a talented broadcast and magazine journalist. She decided to conduct research to fill in the gaps.

The result: One of the most interesting, instructive memoirs by an investigative journalist that I have read. And I have read a lot of them.

The memoir ends in 1972, before Nelson transferred to Washington, D.C., and became the highly visible bureau chief there for the Los Angeles Times. But those missing decades are irrelevant to an appreciation of the memoir. That’s because Nelson relates such gripping stories about exposing political corruption and racism in the Old South (as it slowly crept toward becoming the so-called New South) that no reader is likely to feel cheated.

Atlanta seemed like a gigantic city to Nelson, but he adapted well. He recalls an exciting metropolis, “a bustling city expanding outwards in all directions, far more cosmopolitan than Georgia as a whole. The city fathers had begun courting Northern investment as early as the ’20s, promoting Atlanta as a business-friendly center of manufacturing, transportation and banking.

Although segregation was rigidly enforced until the ’60s, the town had a reputation for racial moderation, which helped attract businesses and out-of-town conventions. William Hartsfield, who served six terms as mayor and owed his longevity to the black vote, dubbed Atlanta “the city too busy to hate.” Much of the action related by Nelson occurs in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. The most searing Georgia chapter is set in Milledgeville, where the state mental hospital had become a nightmare of inhumanity. When a Georgia state legislator from Milledgeville suggested that the Atlanta newspapers investigate it, Nelson received the assignment.

Nelson found a few knowledgeable sources willing to help with the exposé, including several physicians and other employees. The incompetence, heartlessness and unsanitary conditions affected black and white patients alike, but the black population definitely suffered more.

Each reader is likely to identify a favorite section of this enthralling memoir. Mine revolves around Nelson’s relationship with George Wallace, the snarling racist governor of Alabama who made a serious bid for the U.S. presidency.

Wallace became the reluctant subject of so many Nelson articles that he became somewhat obsessed with the plucky journalist and began telling stories about him. When Nelson decided to challenge Wallace in person about the inaccuracies of certain anecdotes, Wallace replied, “Well, let’s put it this way — about half of what you write about me is so, and about half of what I say about you is so.”