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Nina Totenberg
Born January 14, 1944 (1944-01-14) (age 66)
Nationality United States
Occupation Journalist

Nina Totenberg (born January 14, 1944) is an American legal affairs correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). Her reports air regularly on NPR's newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition. She is also a panelist on the syndicated TV political commentary show Inside Washington.


Background and education

Totenberg was born in New York, the daughter of violinist Roman Totenberg and Melanie Totenberg, who was executive vice president of the Massachusetts chapter of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.[1] She enrolled in Boston University in 1962, majoring in journalism, but dropped out less than three years later because, in her own words, she “wasn’t doing brilliantly.”[1]

Early career

Soon after dropping out of college, Totenberg began her journalism career at the Boston Record American, where she worked on recipes and wedding announcements and learned journalism skills by volunteering in the news department.[2] She moved on to the Peabody Times in Massachusetts and Roll Call in Washington, D.C.

At the National Observer, Totenberg began covering legal affairs because "no one else was doing it". She began her long friendship with future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she called Ginsburg, then a Rutgers University professor, with a question about the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1971 she broke a story about a secret list of candidates President Richard Nixon was considering for the Supreme Court. All the candidates were later rejected as unqualified by the American Bar Association and none were nominated.[2]

After Totenberg wrote an Observer profile of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the latter wrote a long letter to the paper's editor demanding she be fired. Instead, the editor printed the letter in the Observer along with a rebuttal of Hoover's complaints regarding the article.[2]

Totenberg has charged that she was the victim of sexual harrassment at the Observer. She said "I had a boss who made passes at me repeatedly," but has not named that person.[3]

She was fired from that paper for plagiarism in 1972 regarding a profile she wrote of then-soon-to-be Speaker Tip O'Neill which included, without attribution, quotes from members of Congress that had previously appeared in the Washington Post. Such plagiarism has been called "one of the cardinal sins of journalism from which reporters can never recover their credibility",[4] but other reporters have defended her, saying the practice of using quotes in this manner was common journalistic practice in the 1970s.[2][5]. Totenberg also links her dismissal to the sexual harassment case, saying it made her "unpopular with her superiors".[6] In 1995, Totenberg told the Columbia Journalism Review, "I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again."[7]

She next worked for the Washington, D.C. news magazine New Times. At that publication, she wrote a notorious article called "The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress", prompting the senator at the top of the list, William L. Scott, to call a press conference to attempt to rebut allegations regarding his stupidity.[2][8]

In the 1990s she was a regular contributor to ABC's Nightline.

National Public Radio

In 1975, Nina Totenberg was hired by Bob Zelnick to work at National Public Radio and has been there since.

Watergate appeals

In 1977, Totenberg broke a story about the Supreme Court appeal of three men who had been convicted in the Watergate scandal: H.R. Haldeman, John N. Mitchell, and John D. Ehrlichman. Totenberg revealed the results of their secret 5-3 vote against reviewing the case and that the three dissenters were appointees of President Richard Nixon, who resigned in the wake of Watergate. Totenberg also revealed that Nixon-appointed Chief Justice Warren Burger delayed announcing the results of the vote hoping to sway his fellow justices.[2]

Douglas Ginsburg's Supreme Court nomination

Totenberg broke the story that Douglas H. Ginsburg, who had been nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, had smoked marijuana "on a few occasions" during his student days in the 1960s and while an Assistant Professor in the 1970s, something that didn't appear in Ginsburg's FBI background check. The revelations resulted in Ginsburg's withdrawing his name from consideration. Totenberg was awarded the 1988 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton award for outstanding broadcast journalism for the story.[1][8]

Totenberg was accused of using material without proper attribution by several staffers at the Legal Times, who claim she did so when one of her stories on Ginsburg "bore an alarming resemblance to what I [Aaron Freiwald] had just given her." Totenberg said she had been working on the story for days before she had access to the Legal Times material and had already discovered the same information.[5]

Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings

In 1991, a few days before a confirmation vote was scheduled for Republican George H. W. Bush's Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Totenberg received a leak of confidential documents that included allegations of sexual harassment lodged against Thomas by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill.[9] Totenberg's report about Hill's allegations led the Senate Judiciary Committee to re-open Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings to consider Hill's charges.

Criticism came from many Thomas supporters[10], including Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee, who appointed special counsel Peter E. Fleming Jr.. Totenberg and another reporter, Newsday's Timothy Phelps, were subpoenaed by Fleming but refused to answer questions about their confidential sources.[11] Totenberg even had a confrontation with one committee senator, Republican Alan K. Simpson, during and after the taping of an episode of Nightline. On the show, Simpson criticized Totenberg, saying "What politicians get tired of is bias in reporters. Let's not pretend your reporting is objective here. That would be absurd." Totenberg defended her reporting and objectivity on the show and Simpson followed her out of the studio to continue to criticize her, even holding open the door of her limousine so she couldn't leave. "He was in a complete rage. He was out of control," Totenberg said.[5][8] Accounts differ on exactly how she responded to this, but she used what she called "choice epithets" and said "I think I told him to shut the fuck up."[5]

Following Totenberg's allegation to the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz that she had been sexually harassed at the National Observer, Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal brought up the plagiarism incident in a column about media coverage of and responses to the Thomas hearings.[4] Some observers connected Hunt's rehashing of a then nearly 20-year-old incident to the stance of the Journal, whose conservative editorial pages had "editorially championed" Thomas and had previously criticized Totenberg,[10] but Hunt denied any ideological motivation.[5]

For the report and NPR's gavel-to-gavel coverage, Totenberg received the George Foster Peabody Award. The same year she won the George Polk Award for excellence in journalism and the Joan S. Barone Award for excellence in Washington-based national affairs/public policy reporting (the latter also in part for her coverage of the retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall). The American Library Association presented her with their James Madison Award, given to those who "championed, protected, and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know".[1][12] She also earned the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative reporting.[13]

Personal life

Totenberg is the widow of the late Democratic Sen. Floyd Haskell (Colo), whom she married in 1979. She remarried in 2000 to Dr. H. David Reines, a trauma surgeon and vice chairman of surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital. On their honeymoon, he treated her for severe injuries after she was hit by a boat propeller while swimming.[14]


In addition to the awards mentioned above, and among her other awards, Totenberg won the Columbia University Dupont Award in 1988 for her coverage of the Supreme Court nominations. She has been honored seven times by the American Bar Association for excellence in legal reporting.[13] She also won the first-ever Toni House award presented by the American Judicature Society for a career body of work and was the first radio journalist to be honored by the National Press Foundation as Broadcaster of the Year.


Totenberg's image has also been used for NPR's tongue-in-cheek pledge-drive gift: The Nina Totin' Bag. It is a play on the stereotypical pledge-drive tote-bag so often referred to by those who lampoon public media and the name of NPR's Legal Affairs correspondent.[15]


Totenberg has written articles for the Harvard Law Review; the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine; the Christian Science Monitor; and numerous other legal and general circulation publications.[13]

She took on Cate Edwards as an intern after the latter finished her first year in Law School (summer of 2007); at the time, Cate's father John Edwards was running for the Democratic nomination for president.[16]

She appeared briefly as herself in the Kevin Kline film, Dave.

Controversies and criticism

Totenberg has made friends with a number of politicians and lawyers in national politics, and her personal connections to these people has occasionally generated discussion. Totenberg was criticized by some commentators for hugging her friend Lani Guinier during a press conference announcing Guinier's nomination by Bill Clinton to the post of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.[17] Media critic Howard Kurtz reported that while Totenberg said she did not intend to give special treatment to Gunier in her reporting she had hugged her because she had not seen her in some time.[18] Then in 2000 some journalists expressed concern that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiating Totenberg's marriage[19] could be seen as a conflict of interest.[20] Totenberg responded she did not consider it a conflict of interest since her friendship with the jurist was established before Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court.[20]

Conservatives such as Paul Gigot[21] and L. Brent Bozell III[22] have asserted that Totenberg exhibits a liberal bias in her reporting. Additionally, the National Rifle Association of America[23] and Don Kates[24] have both used Totenberg's legal reporting on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution as an example of what they perceive to be a bias in the mainstream media against pro-gun rights positions. Conservatives including Jeff Jacoby and Bozell's Media Research Center have also accused Totenberg of engaging in a kind of rhetorical argumentum ad baculum against right-wing news-makers Jesse Helms[25] and William G. Boykin[26] in comments made for Inside Washington. Her comments about Boykin in particular were discussed by the NPR ombudsman in a piece where he made a case for distinguishing between the punditry and reporting of journalists.[26]


  1. ^ a b c d "She Made It". Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Nina Totenberg", Current Biography Yearbook, 1996, pages 575-9.
  3. ^ Howard Kurtz, "The Legal Reporter's Full Court Press: NPR's Nina Totenberg & Her Anita Hill Scoop", Washington Post, October 10, 1991
  4. ^ a b Hunt, Albert R. (October 17, 1991). "Tales of Ignominy, Beyond Thomas and Hill". Wall Street Journal. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Ann Louise Bardach, "Nina Totenberg: Queen of the Leaks", Vanity Fair, January 1992, pages 46-57
  6. ^ Thomas B. Rosenstiel (Oct 18, 1991). "Media Squabble Over Coverage of Thomas Hearings Conduct: One reporter has quit, another faces a sexual harassment investigation. The press is accused of being `out of the mainstream' of thought.". Los Angeles Times: pp. 22. 
  7. ^ Trudy Lieberman, "Plagiarize, Plagiarize, Plagiarize...", Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1995.
  8. ^ a b c Nina Totenberg." Newsmakers 1992, Issue Cumulation. Gale Research, 1992. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009.
  9. ^ Jan Crawford Greenburg (2007-09-30). "Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out". ABC News. Retrieved 2008-10-18. 
  10. ^ a b J. Elson and S.S. Gregory, "When Reporters Make News", Time, October 28, 1991, Vol. 138 Issue 17, p30
  11. ^ Neil A. Lewis, "Second Reporter Silent In Senate Leak Inquiry", New York Times, Feb 25, 1992
  12. ^ American Library Association, [ "Recipients of the James Madison Award and the Eileen Cooke State and Local Madison Award"]
  13. ^ a b c "Nina Totenberg; NPR Biography". 2007-09-25. 
  14. ^ Warren, Larkin (2001-10-01). "My husband saved my life!: three heroic men who did much more than love, honor, and cherish". Good Housekeeping. Retrieved 2009-07-30. 
  15. ^ "Nina Totin' Bag". 2009-05-18. 
  16. ^ "NPR Summer 2007 Internas". Retrieved 2009-08-04. 
  17. ^ Guinier, Lani (2003-03-07). Lift Every Voice. Simon & Schuster. p. 107. ISBN 978-0743253512. Retrieved 2009-08-11. "[The incident was] used by several commentators to question [Totenberg's] 'objectivity'." 
  18. ^ Howard Kurtz, "First Lady's Press Picks; The Ins and Outs of Getting Interviews With Hillary," Washington Post, May 8, 1993 "Totenberg dismissed suggestions that she might go easy on Guinier.... [saying] '[Guinier was] not a close friend.... I have lots of friends. Part of being in this business is knowing lots of people.'"
  19. ^ Phillips, Lisa (2006-05-09). Public Radio: Behind the Voices. Vanguard Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-1593151430. Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  20. ^ a b Smith, Ron (2003-04-18). Groping for ethics in journalism. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 368. ISBN 978-0813810881. Retrieved 2009-08-04. "I have known Ruth Ginsburg long before she was on the Supreme Court... I do not consider it a conflict of interest." 
  21. ^ As quoted in Ann Louise Bardach, "Nina Totenberg: Queen of the Leaks", Vanity Fair, January 1992: "I think the thing that I would criticize Nina for is that she is simply a partisan."
  22. ^ L. Brent Bozell III, "Who Started The Supreme Court Circus?", Creators Syndicate, July 6, 2005 "In 1991, Totenberg... forced a new set of hearings around [Anita] Hill’s... [accusations] of sexual harassment by Thomas. But when Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick came forward with their... charges against Bill Clinton, Totenberg’s compassion was nowhere to be found."
  23. ^ Congressional testimony of James H. Warner, Assistant General Counsel National Rifle Association of America, January 19, 1995.
    In one broadcast NPR reporter Nina Totenberg said "[t]here may be a lively debate about whether the Constitution confers on individuals the right to bear arms, but that debate is not going on in America's courts, its law schools, or its scholarly legal journals. Indeed, even the National Rifle Association could not recommend for this broadcast a single constitutional law professor who would defend the Second Amendment as conferring on individuals the right to bear arms."
  24. ^ Kates, Don (1997-11). The Great American Gun Debate. Pacific Research Institute. p. 15. ISBN 978-0936488394. "[T]he conventional wisdom that the Second Amendment doesn't guarantee individuals anything [is dogmatic]." 
  25. ^ Jacoby, Jeff (2003-12-28). "Hate Speech of the Left". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  26. ^ a b See transcript at Dvorkin, Jeffrey (2003-10-29). "NPR Journalists: Pundits or Reporters? Time to Choose". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 

See also

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Nina Totenberg is an American journalist for the National Public Radio (NPR).


  • [On Senator Jesse Helms] I think he ought to be worried about what's going on in the Good Lord's mind, because if there is retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will.

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