Nina Totenberg, one of the best-known journalists at National Public Radio (NPR), is well-known for reporting behind-the-scenes stories of political and legal developments and presenting them in a comprehensible format to the general public. Her reports played a role in placing the subject of sexual harassment on the national agenda during the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U. S. Supreme Court. Moving in circles of Washington’s political elite, Totenberg stood out as a close friend of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who officiated at Totenberg’s second marriage. Totenberg maintains that personal relationships do not influence her reporting.
Nina Totenberg, veteran legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), has won numerous awards for her coverage of the United States Supreme Court during her ground-breaking career. Perhaps best-known for reporting allegations of sexual harassment brought by Anita Hill, a law professor, against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings for the court in 1991, Totenberg has become a legend in Washington journalism. She offers first-hand reports on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” NPR’s daily newsmagazines, and broadcasts on its “Weekend Edition.” A frequent guest on television news programs, she has contributed articles on the court to major periodicals including the New York Times Magazine and the Harvard Law Review.
Family and Education
Little in Totenberg’s background indicated that she would become a distinguished journalist, referred to by Newsweek magazine as the “crème de la crème” of NPR. She was born on January 14, 1944, in New York City, the oldest of three children of Melanie Totenberg, a political activist and real estate broker, and Roman Totenberg, a Polish Jewish immigrant who was an acclaimed concert violist. She grew up with her sisters, Jill and Amy, in Scarsdale, New York, where she graduated from high school.
All three Totenberg daughters attained success, with Jill engaging in marketing communications and Amy becoming a U.S. District Court judge in Georgia. In 2015 the sisters received media attention when a Stradivarius violin stolen from their father by a music student 35 years earlier was returned to the family. Totenberg herself reported for NPR on the discovery of the famous instrument in the apartment of the thief after his death.
Totenberg majored in journalism at Boston University but left in her second year because, as she put it, she “wasn’t doing brilliantly.” Encountering sexism that dominated newsrooms in the 1960s, she worked her way up by becoming an expert on interpreting legal and political issues for the general public. In the process she surmounted attacks on her journalistic integrity, including charges of liberal bias and partisanship as she cultivated sources in highly placed circles.
Becoming a Journalist
Totenberg’s first job consisted of writing recipes and wedding announcements for the Boston Record American, where she voluntarily spent hours learning basic news reporting. She then became a general assignment reporter at the Peabody Times in Peabody, Massachusetts. Eager to cover politics, Totenberg moved to Washington in 1968 as the sole editor of Roll Call, a weekly covering Capitol Hill. She soon joined the staff of the National Observer, a now-defunct weekly, where she first began to report on the Supreme Court, brashly calling justices for off-the-record conversations that enabled her to produce award-winning stories.
In 1971, Totenberg wrote a profile on J. Edgar Hoover, long-time head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that enraged the 76-year-old director. Refuting Hoover’s claim of distorted reporting, Totenberg’s editors refused to fire her, as Hoover demanded, and pointed out that she had interviewed more than 100 government figures to gain material on his lifetime of activities. Nevertheless, the next year Totenberg was fired for plagiarism, after writing a story using quotes from members of Congress without attributing them to the Washington Post, where they had been published. Her defenders said reprinting of previously reported quotes represented common journalistic practice of the day.
After leaving the National Observer, Totenberg worked briefly for New Times magazine, where she wrote an often-imitated article, “The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress.” It prompted Sen. William L. Scott of Virginia, who headed the list, to hold a press conference to decry the appellation, drawing more ridicule to himself and further establishing Totenberg as a formidable reporter.
National Public Radio
Although she lacked broadcasting experience, Totenberg joined NPR in 1975 and found herself for the first time among other exceptional women journalists. Totenberg, Cokie Roberts, and Linda Wertheimer eventually became known at the three musketeers of NPR because they developed notable careers there at a time when other news organizations were less hospitable to women. In 1994 the New York Times credited the three with “revolutionizing political reporting,” by making it much less a male occupation than previously. According to Totenberg, this was due partly to pay. “NPR’s wages were at least a third lower than elsewhere in the industry and for what they paid, they couldn’t find men,” she said.
At NPR Totenberg soon achieved recognition. In 1977 she reported on secret Supreme Court deliberations denying appeals by three top figures in the Watergate scandal that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon. A decade later she received the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton for coverage of Supreme Court nominations, after revealing that one nominee, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, had used marijuana while on the Harvard Law School faculty. This disclosure led him to withdraw his nomination. Jurors for the award complimented Totenberg on “raising issues of changing social values and credibility with careful perspective under deadline pressure.”
Coverage of the Clarence Thomas Nomination
During the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Clarence Thomas nomination in 1991, Totenberg found herself targeted by those who questioned her motivations for airing Hill’s charges as set forth in a confidential committee affidavit accusing Thomas of sexual misconduct. While another reporter, Timothy Phelps of Newsday, actually broke the story, Totenberg obtained a copy of the affidavit and gained as an exclusive interview with Hill, who had been ambivalent about making charges publicly.
Observers credited Totenberg’s reporting with pressing the committee to reopen its hearings on Thomas’s confirmation. With Totenberg as its anchor, NPR broadcast both the original and subsequent hearings from start to finish, for which it received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. Totenberg herself won the Long Island University George Polk Award for journalistic excellence and the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative reporting. For the Thomas hearings as well as commentary on the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall, she received the Joan S. Barone Award for Washington public affairs reporting.
Conservative allies of Thomas, however, accused Totenberg of lack of objectivity. One Senator, Alan K. Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming, criticized her reporting sharply as they both were being taped for appearances on Nightline, an ABC television news program. He carried his dissatisfaction out of the studio to a driveway where he and Totenberg engaged in a heated and well-publicized exchange, described in Vanity Fair as “a full-tilt, epithet-strewn melee.” After Totenberg told the Washington Post that she had been sexually harassed while working at the National Observer, a column in the Wall Street Journal brought up her firing for plagiarism in 1972. Opponents of Thomas’s nomination questioned the rationale for publicizing a long-past incident and pointed out that the Wall Street Journal championed Thomas on its editorial page.
After Thomas gained confirmation, his supporters insisted the Senate appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the leak of the affidavit. Called to testify for four hours in 1992, Totenberg refused to name her source on grounds of freedom of the press. Subsequent efforts by the prosecutor to cite her for contempt failed, and the American Library Association gave Totenberg its James Madison Award for upholding the public’s right to know government information.
In an adaptation of a transcript of the Thomas-Hill hearings preserved in the Jewish Women’s Archive, Totenberg said, “The hearings ripped open the subject of sexual harassment like some sort of long-festering sore. It oozed over every workplace, creating everything from heated discussions to an avalanche of lawsuits.” She noted that in 1992 the number of sexual harassment charges filed with federal agencies increased nearly 72 percent over the number brought in 1990. In a 2012 biographical sketch, Totenberg credited her first husband, Floyd K. Haskell, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, with encouraging her to recognize the newsworthiness of Hill’s affidavit. The couple was married in 1979; Haskell died in 1998.
Honors and Recognition
Totenberg has appeared in documentaries, among them “RBG,” a film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The justice officiated at the marriage in 2000 of Totenberg and Dr. H. David Reines, a trauma surgeon, who treated Totenberg when she was hit by a boat propeller during their honeymoon. Totenberg responded to complaints that Ginsburg’s role at the wedding constituted a conflict of interest for a journalist covering legal affairs by saying that Ginsburg had been her close friend long before being named to the high court.
During a 50-year career, Totenberg has been honoured seven times by the American Bar Association for excellence in legal reporting. She won the first Toni House award from the American Judicature Society for her entire body of work and was the first radio journalist designated as Broadcaster of the Year by the National Press Foundation. She has received more than two dozen honorary degrees, although she never finished college.
Over the years Totenberg, who served as a panellist from 1992 to 2013 on the syndicated television show “Inside Washington,” has participated in Jewish events. Interviewed by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle in 2019 following a program at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, she advised on facing communal tragedy like the previous year’s shooting at a synagogue: “…try to step back and say ‘My heart’s broken about this but I need to do my job.’”
Bardach, Ann Louise (January 1992), “Nina Totenberg: Queen of the Leaks,” Vanity Fair. 46-57.
Beasley, Maurine H. Women of the Washington Press: Politics, Prejudice and Persistence. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 2012.
“How I Get It Done,” https://www.thecut.com/2019/06/nina-totenberg-npr-supreme-court-how-i-get-it-done.html.
Hunt, Albert R. (October 17, 1991). “Tales of Ignominy, Beyond Thomas and Hill,” The Wall Street Journal.
Jewish Women’s Archive. “Nina Totenberg,” https://jwa.org/feminism/totenberg-nina.
NPR, “Nina Totenberg,” https://www.npr.org/people/2101289/nina-totenberg.
Phillips, Lisa A. Public Radio: Behind the Voices. New York: CDS Books, 2006.
Reinherz, Adam. “Totenberg gets personal.” Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, October 2, 2019. https://jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com/totenberg-gets-personal/
Totenberg interview with Rabbi Ron Symons, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpn2GL4L1CI