TV Article

Nina Totenberg: Uncovering the Court

The NPR legal-affairs correspondent became a story herself during the hearings

What happens when a journalist becomes a player in her own story? When the reporter is Nina Totenberg, the National Public Radio legal-affairs correspondent who helped break the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment story, she becomes a story herself.

Her name was invoked by Anita Hill (Totenberg was the first reporter to interview her) and at least one other witness during the hearings, and the leak that led to Totenberg's story was at the heart of often bitter exchanges. In a confrontation on Nightline, Sen. Alan Simpson accused Totenberg of ''violating a confidence'' and destroying Hill's life by making her identity public. After the show, he reportedly pursued the debate into the street and even held open the door of a waiting limousine so Totenberg couldn't leave. She returned the favor by cursing and shouting, ''You're a bitter and evil man and all your colleagues hate you!''

It's certainly not the first time Totenberg, 47, has been at the center of controversy. In 1987, the Massachusetts native, who has covered the Supreme Court for NPR since 1975, broke the story that then nominee Douglas Ginsburg had smoked marijuana while teaching at Harvard Law School; Ginsburg eventually withdrew. In 1977, she disclosed that the Supreme Court would deny the appeals of three Watergate defendants — a leak that some news accounts speculated arose from her friendship with Justice Potter Stewart. Totenberg denied that Stewart was her source.

Married for 12 years to former Colorado Democratic U.S. Senator Floyd Haskell, Totenberg often appears on MacNeil/Lehrer, but the Thomas hearings provided her with extended TV exposure. Along with Paul Duke, she coanchored PBS' gavel-to-gavel coverage of the entire confirmation proceedings and acquitted herself with cool confidence. She also brought a heightened sensitivity to the issue at hand: Totenberg has stated she was the victim of sexual harassment in the mid-'70s, when she was a reporter for the defunct National Observer. ''Most people find it hard to believe this goes on,'' she said recently. ''If you've had it happen to you, it becomes slightly more believable.''

Originally posted Oct 25, 1991 Published in issue #89 Oct 25, 1991 Order article reprints
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