©2007 NPR, by Steve Barrett
Nina Totenberg shocked the nation with her groundbreaking 1991 National Public Radio Weekend Edition report about law professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas—a report that led the Senate Judiciary Committee to reopen Thomas’s confirmation hearings and sparked a nationwide dialogue on sexual harassment in the workplace. For her part in bringing the story to the public’s attention, Totenberg was characteristically modest: “If I’d had anything else to do that week, nothing would’ve happened,” she once said. Indeed, in a distinguished career in print and electronic media spanning four decades—with reports from a 1971 National Observer profile of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to numerous NPR stories on major Supreme Court decisions over the years—Totenberg has become one of the nation’s top legal affairs correspondents. When asked why, without any legal education or even a college degree, she gravitated toward legal affairs reporting, she answers succinctly: “Nobody else was doing it.” Totenberg, whom media analyst Ron Powers once called “one of the most admired and competitively feared reporters in Washington,” rose to the top by combining a fearless pursuit of leads and contacts with a broad knowledge of the complex U.S. judicial system. Though Totenberg strives for objectivity in all her work, she has a knack for ruffling feathers. To the detractors, she says, “You can’t do good investigative work without making some people mad. I just keep my head down and do my job. Whether liberals or conservatives like or dislike it is of no importance to me whatsoever.”
One of three daughters of Melanie and Roman Totenberg, Nina was born in New York City and grew up in suburban Scarsdale, along with her younger sisters Jill and Amy. Her father, a Polish émigré, is a highly respected concert violinist and music educator at Boston University. Her mother, who passed away in 1996, was a political activist, serving as the executive vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of Americans for Democratic Action. In school, Nina excelled in reading and creative writing, describing herself as “an okay student,” while also taking an early interest in national politics. She graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1962 and enrolled in Boston University, where she majored in journalism. She dropped out less than three years later because, as she puts it, she “wasn’t doing brilliantly” and began looking for a job.
For a woman in the midsixites, finding a job in the male-dominated news industry was not without hardships. Totenberg recalls her initial job search: “It was blatant. You were constantly thrown in the position of feeling like you were asking for favors when you applied for a job.” When she did land one—rewriting recipes and wedding announcements for the women’s page at the Record American, a Boston-based newspaper—Totenberg went above and beyond her regular duties and took voluntary shifts in the news department. Such ambition eventually led her to a job as a general assignment reporter for the Peabody Times in nearby Peabody, Massachusetts, where she once wrote every story on the front page. Totenberg also did some political reporting, covering the 1968 presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire. Later that year, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she first took a job as the sole editor of Roll Call, a weekly tabloid covering Capitol Hill. She soon left to take a staff position at the now-defunct Dow Jones weekly National Observer, where she discovered her interest in legal reporting.
While she educated her audience, writing weekly background reports on the Supreme Court for the National Observer, Totenberg educated herself, spending long hours reading legal briefs and trying to understand the issues involved. She once called her lack of a legal background, “a hidden advantage,” and added, “After all, you’re communicating with people who aren’t lawyers. You have to speak their language, not lawyerese. If I had a hard time understanding something, I had to get it boiled down to the point that I could convey it to the audience.” This approach allowed her to begin compiling an impressive list of contacts in political and judicial circles. “I was young and very brash and willing to ask anybody anything, and I would call up justices and make appointments to see them and have off-the-record or background conversations,” she said. For her reporting on a series of articles interpreting major U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the National Observer earned a Silver Gavel Award presented by the American Bar Association in 1971, an award Totenberg won many more times in her career.
As Totenberg’s legal knowledge developed at the National Observer, so did her journalistic edge. Her tenacity in pursuit of leads has earned her a reputation among colleagues and the press corps for being “tough unto obnoxious, especially in her early years,” as one writer put it. One of her early exclusives that caused quite a stir was a 1971 profile of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called “Life and Times of a 76-Year-Old Cop.” Weeks after it was printed on the front page of the Observer, Hoover addressed a scathing letter to the paper denouncing Totenberg’s reporting as “unfair…a blatant attempt to set forth a string of innuendoes, inaccuracies, and plain, outright distortions…[and] a pretty low form of journalistic endeavor.” The editors responded with a letter defending and praising Totenberg, citing the fact that she had interviewed 108 top-ranking governmental figures for the article. They also provided documentation refuting Hoover’s claims that she had fabricated facts. The correspondence, printed in a subsequent edition of the paper, boosted the credibility of Totenberg’s hard-nosed brand of journalism.
Upon leaving the National Observer in 1973, Totenberg joined the staff of New Times magazine and reported in the same vein for a number of articles, including the now-infamous and oft-imitated “The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress.” After finding his name atop the list, Senator William L. Scott of Virginia was so incensed by the article that he called a special press conference in an attempt to rebut the allegations. Totenberg had established herself as a go-for-the-throat journalist, but she had only just begun.
In 1974, National Public Radio offered Totenberg a position as the network’s legal affairs correspondent. Although she had no previous experience in broadcasting, she accepted, and soon found herself amongst a staff made up of several women. At NPR, Totenberg developed her legal affairs beat, reporting a number of high-profile stories for such programs as Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered in the late seventies and early eighties. She covered the Iran-Contra scandal; probed the controversies in the pasts of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Attorney General Edwin Meese; reported about the legal backgrounds of every nominee to the Supreme Court; and disclosed the details of a secret Supreme Court vote regarding the review of the appeals of three White House officials who had been convicted for their roles in the Watergate scandal.
In 1987, Totenberg broke a story with serious political implications. She revealed that Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg, a judge on the appellate court in Washington, had openly smoked marijuana while he was a member of the Harvard Law School faculty during the seventies. This was especially embarrassing to President Ronald Reagan, who had portrayed Ginsburg as a law-and-order candidate. Ginsburg withdrew his name from consideration a few days later after sustaining substantial media bombardment. The scoop earned Totenberg the 1988 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton award for outstanding broadcast journalism, as well as a place on Esquire magazine’s list of the “52 Women We Love.”
While the Ginsburg story certainly raised Totenberg’s national profile, her real “crossing of the Rubicon,” as she called it, came in 1991 as she covered the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination. When the hearings concluded in late September of that year, the committee voted in an even split, 7-7—a surprise to many, as Thomas’s nomination was widely expected to be confirmed—and Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Joseph R. Biden gave what many called an odd and rambling speech about his reasons for opposing the nomination. Totenberg sensed something was amiss. Wielding her deep Washington connections, she discovered that Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor and former employee of Thomas, had filed a confidential affidavit with the Judiciary Committee alleging that Hill had been sexually harassed by the judicial nominee. Another reporter, Timothy Phelps of Newsday, also discovered this independently and broke the story on October 5, 1991. But it was Totenberg who obtained a copy of the affidavit as well as an interview with Hill and issued the complete report a day later on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
“When I walked into the Capitol on Monday morning the place was erupting. The fax machines were vaporizing; the phones were jammed; I was almost as surprised as those male senators were. They could not push through a vote the next day as they had hoped,” Totenberg said. Days after the report aired, Totenberg found herself under attack. The report discredited Clarence Thomas’s supporters, who had promoted his character over his lackluster legal qualifications. It embroiled the Senate Judiciary Committee, as its members had largely downplayed or outright ignored Anita Hill’s claims. Individual senators were also quick to pounce on Totenberg for what they called “biased” reporting. A heated on-camera discussion between Totenberg and Republican Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming on a Nightline episode devoted to Hill’s allegations turned into “a full-tilt, epithet-strewn melee” afterwards in the ABC parking lot, according to Vanity Fair’s Ann Bardach.
In fact, Totenberg herself had become so much a part of the controversy that in 1992, infuriated Republican senators convinced the full Senate to assemble a special independent counsel in order to reveal the source of the leaks of Anita Hill’s affidavit. On February 24, Totenberg underwent a four-hour interrogation by Peter F. Fleming, the Senate special counsel, who asked detailed questions about how she had obtained information regarding Anita Hill. “To all of these [questions],” the intrepid Totenberg replied, “I respectfully decline to answer, because to do so would threaten the rights of the press to inform the public about the workings of government. I will not be a party to this effort, even if it costs me my liberty.” A month later, Fleming requested the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to seek a contempt citation against Totenberg, but it was turned down. For her fearlessness and triumph that year, the American Library Association presented Totenberg with a James Madison Award, which honors those who have championed, protected, and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know.
Totenberg’s report resulted in a grueling second round of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Clarence Thomas’s qualifications to sit on the Supreme Court, featuring testimony by Anita Hill. Although Hill’s story changed enough minds to narrow the vote, Thomas was ultimately confirmed. In a broader sense, though, Totenberg’s report made sexual harassment a national issue. She recalled numerous personal embarrassments in the workplace where she would “walk down the hall at the National Observer [and] the printers used to line up and dissect [her] body, sort of piece by piece,” and in the Capitol, where she was often cat-called by members of Congress. Before it aired, Totenberg felt the story was important but she had trouble deciding whether or not it was newsworthy: “I had members of the Judiciary Committee…saying to me ‘Oh Nina this is no big deal,’” and was told that the report wouldn’t be a “silver bullet.” Yet when she turned to her then-husband, former Senator Floyd Haskell, to whom she had been married since 1979, she was encouraged with “a reality check from a man, not a woman” and decided that the story was important enough. “In the aftermath…the numbers of sexual harassment suits filed just zoomed upward, women started chattering to each other about this and finding out that they weren’t the only ones, and employers found out it was going on and that they had to do something about it,” Totenberg said, adding, “If that behavior were to exist today, it would blow the roof off of places. Things really have changed in part because we’ve discussed it.”
Although the Anita Hill report undoubtedly attained the highest profile in her career, Totenberg has said, “I hope it’s not the first thing in my obit…The stories that I’m proudest of doing are the really well-written, well-nuanced stories.” Throughout her career she has been a frequent contributor to publications such as the New York Times Magazine, the Harvard Law Review, the Christian Science Monitor, Parade Magazine, New York Magazine, and others. She has served as a legal affairs commentator for ABC’s Nightline and as the legal affairs correspondent on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. She has also appeared in two films: aside Eddie Murphy in the 1992 comedy The Distinguished Gentleman, as well as Ivan Reitman’s Dave in 1993.
For her distinguished career, Totenberg was named Broadcaster of the Year and honored with the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcasting from the National Press Foundation in 1998. She is the first radio journalist to receive that award. On top of numerous honorary law degrees, she is also the recipient of the American Judicature Society’s first-ever award honoring a career body of work in the field of journalism and law. Her coverage of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings earned her several awards, including a George Foster Peabody Award and a George Polk Award.
After her first husband, Floyd Haskell, died in 1998, Totenberg remarried in 2000 to Boston-based physician David Reines. She continues to report for NPR’s Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered. She is a regular panelist on Inside Washington, a weekly syndicated public affairs television program produced in the nation’s capital, and also makes frequent appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press and other talk shows. Now in her early sixties, she maintains her tradition of meticulous and hard-nosed journalism, quipping, “Now that I’m an old hag and still getting stories, perhaps people will see that I always got stories the same way, by hard work.”