NPR’s Totenberg: ‘I wanted to be a witness to history’

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Meeting the person ‘behind the voice’

Anytime a radio personality gets on the air, listeners develop a mental picture of the person behind the voice.

Frequent National Public Radio listeners are no different. Ira Glass, Sylvia Poggioli, Steve Inskeep and Juan Williams appear on the radio so often anyone who has heard them has developed a mental image of what they look like even without scouring NPR’s site for a portrait.

Nina Totenberg, who, for the record is all of 5-foot, 4 ½-inches and looks like everyone’s favorite aunt, is no different.

Totenberg has been on NPR almost since it first went on the air in 1970 and she loves to talk about what it was like “back then.”

“I’m so old that there were no women reporters when I was young,” she told a crowd of college journalists in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I figured as I got older I realized I couldn’t be Nancy Drew because, first of all, I’d have to kill my mother. Nancy Drew had her widowed father and her boyfriend Ned and her red roadster. And none of those things were going to happen to me and I really loved my mother.”

She enjoys a good laugh.

So, she wasn’t going to be Nancy Drew. And she wasn’t going to be a police detective.

“That was out of the question too because there weren’t any women of them.”

But she was interested in public life and politics but didn’t want to be a part of, as she said, “the cause.”

“I wanted to be a witness to history,” she said. “They say journalism is the first draft of history. Well, I wanted to write the first draft.”

And the rest is, well, history.

Since 1975, Totenberg has covered the courts for NPR where she joined women like Linda Wertheimer, Susan Stamberg and, eventually, Cokie Roberts in a female-dominated newsroom — because NPR paid so little. But early on, she said, “It was lonely.”

“We sat in one little area, we sat together,” she recalled. “The guys there thought we didn’t know but they referred to it as the fallopian jungle. We thought it was funny. Today it would probably be grounds for hanging. We didn’t think it was terribly respectful but we did think it was funny.”

She prides herself on being able to take complex issues before the U.S. Supreme Court and other legal issues and distilling them so that listeners even without any legal background can understand.

“I have an instinct for understanding these concepts,” she said, concepts related to everything from abortion to DACA to religion to guns. “Once I get it through my thick head, it’s easier to distill it for an audience.”

But she said it’s also important not only to understand the issues but to know and to understand the people involved. She attributed part of her success in covering the Supreme Court to the personal and professional relationships she’s built up with the justices over the years.

“It helps to have known people,” she said. “It helps if you know them even a little bit.”

She also likes to discuss where the court is now and where it’s going.

For example, she discussed how it’s only in the last couple of decades that justices have given interviews.

“When I first started they simply didn’t give interviews. And they didn’t write books either. That’s really why justices give interviews they’re promoting their books. Justice Ginsburg gives interviews because she is a rockstar. She says it sort of gets her going in the morning to give public appearances.”

However, she doesn’t think the court will go so far as to allow cameras in the court, at least not in her lifetime.

“As a broadcaster I certainly would like to have day audio of the arguments and even more than that I would like same day audio of the opinions. But to have cameras in the Supreme Court, inevitably it would turn into infotainment,” she said. “It would be chopped up and used in, if not deceptive ways, certainly in ways the justices would not like and in ways I would think are not true to the argument.”

While the court may not allow cameras, the recent changes in personnel — particularly the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh — cannot be underestimated.

“I don’t think you can overestimate how big of a shift this will represent. It’s equal to the shift when justice Alito replaced justice O’Connor. There will be nobody who is the sort of centrist right person on the court anymore. You’re going to see a profound in the law over the next few years.”

Indeed, she said, she has little doubt this court will overturn one of the most significant court cases in American history — Roe vs. Wade, the case that effectively made abortion legal.

“It’s not going to survive this court,” she said.

More immediately, however, the impeachment trial inevitably brings more stories her way particularly since, if makes it to the Senate, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts will preside over the trial.

“I’m not sure he really is not looking forward to that,” she said.

But she offered advice for students covering impeachment such as Anna Muckenfuss from The Appalachian in Boone, North Carolina.

“I’m not sure you should,” Totenberg said. “Anybody who is interested in impeachment has a lot of access to many news outlets and people who are experienced and who will know more than you do. If you’re going to cover impeachment, you should find a way to cover it from the student perspective.”

Perhaps that advice shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise. After all, that’s been the way she’s covered all of the hundreds of stories she’s reported on over the last 40-some years, from her own, unique perspective.



From the Student Press Law Center: 
Nina Totenberg talks with SPLC about her career, reporting advice for crowd of student journalists