Beanery Online Literary Magazine

January 14, 2010

Deborah Nelson: Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist



Carolyn C. Holland


Deborah Nelson is speaking in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania


Investigative Journalism in a Democracy

Friday, February 5th

7:30 to 9:30 p. m.

Open to the public. No fee

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ligonier Valley

Rt. 3 east of Ligonier


Still Untitled Lecture

Thursday, February 4th

7:00 p. m.

Open to the public. No fee

University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg

Revisit this site for updated information


     Deborah Nelson, co-winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for a report on abuses in HUD’s Indian housing program (Seattle Times), also worked on two other Pulitzer-winning projects: the deadly accident record of the Harrier jump jet (Los Angeles Times), and the children who died while in Washington D. C.’s child welfare system.

     In autumn 2006, Nelson opted to leave her newspaper job, the Washington investigative editor for the Los Angeles Times, in order to take a faculty position at the Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland. She had spent thirty years working at numerous newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times and the Chicago Sun-Times.  She recognized the radical changes happening in the newspaper industry. She wanted to have a hand in shaping the future, and didn’t consider the newsroom as the best place to do this.  

     Nelson found many of her stories from anonymous tips. Indeed, her Pulitzer project emerged from an anonymous tip leading her to an investigation of a national problem: waste and corruption in HUD’s Native American housing program.

     Often she either observed or read something that raised questions in her mind. While reading about an old buried dump in Chicago that spontaneously combusted, she wondered why such a dangerous site wasn’t on the Superfund list. In seeking the answer, a story emerged on old toxic waste dumps in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. One such property had been donated to a church.

     Nelson, an optimist, believes that if enough mega-media corporations collapse in today’s economy, journalists will restart businesses with many small, independently owned outlets. One emerging outlet for independent journalism is the Internet, which presents the challenge of determining and supporting “truly independent journalism websites from those that deal in gossip and partisan rhetoric.”

     Internet and World Wide Web resources have profoundly influenced journalism, according to Nelson. Information being researched, on government and business, can be accessed faster than ever before possible. Elusive news subjects can be reached through e-mail, which circumvents guards and secretaries. Published articles can be read around the globe.

     Nelson finds it difficult to select the one story, from the “couple dozen” investigative series which she has had published, that she is most proud of. However, she lists Chemicals in the Workplace, a series * about toxic conditions in suburban Chicago industrial factories; The Slum Brokers, the story about toxic dumps; From Deregulation to Disgrace, the story about fraud and abuse in  HUD’s Indian housing program***;  Gene Therapy: about a gene therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania****, and Vietnam—The War Crimes Files: gleaned from declassified Army war crimes records confirming that atrocities by U.S. forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known*****. With Nick Turse at the Los Angeles Times in 2006.

     Using her academic foothold, Nelson hopes both to help create the “new newsroom,” a place not rooted in a physical place or in large institutions, and to retool journalism education, preparing the next generation of journalists by training them in the best of both traditional and emerging reporting techniques. She wants to teach them how to be critical thinkers, and she wants to encourage them to be entrepreneurs.

     The current downsizing of newspapers, happening at a time when power is highly concentrated in Washington, opens the door for corruption to fill the vacuum, according to Nelson. She believes there’s not nearly enough excellent reporters in the nation’s capital to fulfill the journalistic role of watchdog in a democracy, and that there is an urgency to search for new models.

     When asked if she misses being in the newsroom, Nelson notes that it gives her a strange feeling to know that the newsrooms as she knew them are disappearing fast. She tries not to look back.

     In addition to teaching, Nelson continues to write. Her first book was The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes (Basic Books, 2008).  She is also working on a second non-fiction book and have a third on the runway.

* written with Rena Cohen The Daily Herald, Arlington Heights, IL, in 1983

** written with Tom Brune (my husband) at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1990

*** With Eric Nalder and Alex Tizon at the Seattle Times in 1996. (Won the 1997 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting

****with Rick Weiss at The Washington Post in 1999.

*****. With Nick Turse at the Los Angeles Times in 2006.


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