Lars-Erik Nelson was best known for his syndicated column in The New York Daily News, but his career in the news industry spanned over 40 years and took him all over the world. His work appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Nation Magazine, Mother Jones, Foreign Affairs, among others, and his column ran in newspapers across the country. In an obituary, The Associated Press wrote of him, “Professionally, he was a throwback to the pre-television-era reporter of the old school who concentrated on facts, without flashes of ego or partisanship. He was a stickler, also, for reporters keeping their distance from the high-profile officials they covered.” In response to the press’s seeming preoccupation with whether Gore or Bush had the upper hand in public relations during the 2000 election, Lars said to Jim Dwyer of the Daily News, “That's not reporting, that's theater criticism,” coining a phrase that is now often used to describe today’s media.
Lars was born in Brooklyn in 1941, the eldest child of immigrants who met while studying art at Cooper Union. He grew up in Riverdale, attended Bronx High School of Science and was named a New York State Regent Scholar.
Lars graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Russian and subsequently worked at the Digest of Soviet Press, The Bergen County Record, and The New York Herald Tribune, before becoming a foreign correspondent for Reuters in 1967, which took him to London, Moscow, and Prague. In 1977 Lars left Reuters to cover the State Department for Newsweek.
Shortly after joining The New York Daily News in 1979, Lars was given a regular column. For a journalist trained to suppress his opinions and focus on facts, he worried he might not be up to the challenge. Then, he later recalled, along came Ronald Reagan, and Lars found that he had no shortage of opinions.
At a Sperling Breakfast in November 1995, Lars, by gentle prodding, got Newt Gingrich to admit that he had shut down the federal government because Bill Clinton had made him sit at the back of Air Force One. The infamous Daily News “Cry Baby” cover story ran the following day.
Lars’s name has recently come up in the press for his prescient observations about Don Imus’s inappropriate humor.
Just a few months before his death, Lars was a guest on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and said this about The New York Times’s coverage of Wen Ho Lee: “…Investigative reporting can be agenda-driven. The reporting team gets an idea in its head or they find a source, and they cease being skeptical because they're so delighted to have this insider source. Whitewater was a similar case where the Times believed the version told by Jim McDougal. I think you'll agree he was not a particularly good source. But Jim McDougal's version of Whitewater drove that case. Oddly enough, this is the same reporter in that case who did the Wen Ho Lee [series].”
In November 2000, just days before his death, Lars broke the story that Katherine Harris, then-State Attorney General in Florida, was not a neutral participant in the Florida ballot controversy, but that she had been significantly involved in George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
On November 20, Lars had just sat down to watch a DVD of an old film noir, when his wife discovered him unresponsive. He was later pronounced dead at Sibley Hospital. His death was determined to be the result of arteriosclerotic heart disease and hypertension.
In response to the amazing outpouring of sadness at Lars’s death from his readers, colleagues, and the individuals he covered, writer Vince Passaro observed, “Somewhere Lars is looking down on all this and saying, ‘I should have asked for more money.’”