Bryce Nelson, L.A. Times and New York Times reporter and USC journalism professor, dies

Bryce Nelson
Bryce Nelson, a former Los Angeles Times and New York Times reporter and USC journalism professor, has died at 84.
(USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism)

Bryce Nelson, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and a longtime professor at USC’s journalism school, where he served as director in the 1980s, died Saturday of complications from Parkinson’s disease, his family said. He was 84.

After stints at the Washington Post, where he reported on Congress and foreign affairs, and Science magazine, Nelson joined the Los Angeles Times in 1969. Over the next 13 years, he served as a Washington correspondent and as Midwest bureau chief, covering the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island, the Attica prison riot and the uprising at Wounded Knee, among other stories. He then joined the science staff of the New York Times, reporting on human behavior.

A long academic career followed. He was director of USC’s School of Journalism from 1984 to 1988, served as chair of the school’s graduate studies from 1993 to 1997 and remained a professor there until his retirement in 2014.

“Bryce had a very strong moral center,” said Joe Saltzman, a USC journalism professor and former colleague. “He wasn’t swayed by trends. He wasn’t swayed by what’s popular today.” He described Nelson as a champion of “old-fashioned values of accuracy, fairness and transparency.”


Nelson was known to students for giving generously of his time.

“You give me a list of professors who are fantastic with students, he’d be on that list,” Saltzman said. “He never said, ‘I’m busy.’ He said, ‘Come on in, let’s talk.’ He would spend literally hours with his students, where few of his colleagues would.”

Nelson was born Dec. 16, 1937, in Reno, Nev., to Herman and Jennie Nelson. He graduated from Harvard, where he was president of the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, and later earned a master of philosophy degree in politics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. For years, he encouraged USC students to apply to the scholarship program.

Nelson served as senior advisor for press information for the Christopher Commission, which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department after the beating of Rodney King.

When the commission issued its report in 1991, Nelson had copies distributed to journalists with the proviso that they wait two hours to share it with the public — a method known as an “embargo.”

“He trusted that everybody would abide by it, and we all did, except for one TV reporter,” said Judy Muller, a former ABC news correspondent and later one of Nelson’s colleagues at USC.

“I remember he was so appalled that somebody would do that after he’d worked so hard to get an agreement that was fair to everybody,” she said. “Bryce just looked crestfallen. It was the only time I’d ever seen him express anger about something.”


She said Nelson was a print journalist through and through, coming of age in the decades before student reporters were learning to tweet in the field.

“He was definitely from another era,” she said. “He had this really high sense of the integrity of the profession that had to be adhered to, whether you were tweeting or writing a long piece in the New York Times. That was the bottom line for him.”

After he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which curtailed his mobility, he came by Muller’s office at USC and asked her when she planned to retire.

“He said, ‘Don’t wait too long, because I thought I’d have all this time to travel and do all the things I wanted to do, and now I can’t,’” Muller said.

Nelson was a go-to source when reporters wanted a quote on journalistic ethics or the state of the news industry.

In 1995, Nelson blasted CBS News for being on a “quest for gossipy journalism” after interviewer Connie Chung coaxed Newt Gingrich’s mother into a nasty remark about Hillary Clinton.

In a 1996 Tampa Tribune story about Time magazine’s Most Influential People list, Nelson lamented the rise of “sales-oriented journalism” that crowded out “more important, serious journalism.”

In a 2005 Daily Trojan story about left-leaning political bias among college journalism teachers, Nelson said ideology was irrelevant in his classroom, and he taught students to keep their personal feelings out of their reportage.

“Journalists try to view things as dispassionately and nonpartisan as possible,” he said. “Journalism professors follow a professional model. People aren’t closely identified with a political party, and if they are, as journalists, they tend to be suspect.”

Nelson rarely turned away interview requests, and his years as a reporter gave him a sense of what journalists needed.

“He wouldn’t give flip, quick answers just to get a journalist off the phone,” Saltzman said. “He didn’t mind silence. So if a reporter asked him a question, there might be a long pause on the other end. He would very carefully give a measured, thoughtful answer, which is rare.”

Nelson was married to Martha Streiff Nelson, a children’s therapist, for 41 years before her death in 2002. His daughter, Kristin Nelson Winton, died in 2015.

“Bryce was a beautiful man,” said his second wife, Mary Shipp Bartlett, of Pasadena. “He did everything with grace, even his exit from the world.”

Nelson is survived by Bartlett; his son, Matthew Nelson, of Richardson, Texas; granddaughter Anneka Winton of Bend, Ore.; and two brothers.