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Daniel Schorr

The people of NPR

Nina Totenberg   ©NPR: Nina Totenberg

Nina Totenberg

Legal Affairs Correspondent
Morning Edition, All Things Considered

Nina Totenberg is possibly the most highly decorated radio journalist in the country. Apart from her "daytime job" as legal affairs correspondent for NPR, she is a regular on Inside Washington, a public affairs talk show aired on many PBS stations, and has written for major newspapers and journals, such as the New York Times magazine, the Harvard Law Review, or the Christian Science Monitor.

She gained fame — or notoriety, depending on your point of view — when she broke the story of Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegation against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. While she was unable to scuttle Thomas' appointment, she was more successful with Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg whose nomination was withdrawn by the Reagan administration after Totenberg exposed his marijuana use at Harvard. Evidently, it depends on who does the smoking.

Totenberg's career is all the more remarkable considering that she started out on the wrong foot. In 1972, the National Observer fired her when the paper found out that she had lifted several passages from an article in the Washington Post. As a website dedicated to famous plagiarists contemplated:

One can only speculate as to how her career might have gone had she not been confronted with such allegations early on as a young journalist. Clearly she made a determination to turn an unfortunate experience into a stepping stone, and a fantastic career history of dedicated journalism testifies to the benefits of ethical/honest reporting.
[famousplagiarists.com]

Undoubtedly, her popularity with fellow journalists is, at least partially, due to her dogged pursuit of everything conservative. When Senator Jesse Helms, Republican from North Carolina, called for a reduction of the money that NIH spends on AIDS research in an attempt to bring it more in line with spending on other diseases, Totenberg was enraged:

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 get it.
[Inside Washington, WUSA, 7/8/95]

When General Boykin foolishly called the invasion of Iraq a Christian crusade, she blew up:

Well, I hope he's not long for this world because you can imagine…
[Inside Washington, WETA, 10/18/03]

In disbelief, the host of the show, Gordon Peterson, asked her whether she was putting a hit out on Boyken, prompting Totenberg to back-peddle:

No, no. In his job, in his job, in his job, please, please, in his job.

The episode earned her a rare rebuke from the NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin.

Totenberg sees herself surrounded by conservatives. Even liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton appointee and former General Counsel for the ACLU, is, in her eyes, "a pretty conservative liberal judge, if you can be such a thing."

No wonder that Chief Justice John Roberts, like Thomas before him, ended up in Totenberg's cross hairs. According to the Media Research Center, in the weeks leading up to Roberts' confirmation hearing, Totenberg called him a "very conservative," "very, very conservative" and "very, very, very conservative," as well as "a really conservative guy," "a hard-line conservative" and "a clear conservative," not to mention, "a conservative Catholic." On Inside Washington, Totenberg admitted that she "was actually quite surprised at how, how very, very conservative he was."

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Revised 5/5/06