Nina Totenberg talks with SPLC about her career, reporting advice for crowd of student journalists

Nina Totenberg addresses a packed ballroom of student journalists / Photo by Joe Severino

WASHINGTON, D.C. – NPR’s Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg discussed the beginnings of her journalism career, her longtime coverage of the Supreme Court and offered advice to about 1,000 student journalists and advisers in an on-stage conversation with the Student Press Law Center’s Sommer Ingram Dean on Nov. 2.

Totenberg, who can be heard regularly on NPR’s “All Things Considered,”Morning Edition,” “Weekend Edition” and the “NPR Politics Podcast,” was a keynote speaker at the 2019 National College Media Association Convention. Dean, is a staff attorney at SPLC and has known Totenberg since she interned at NPR in 2013.

The only woman in the newsroom 

Dean opened by asking how Totenberg became interested in reporting in the first place.

“Oh well, I’m so old that there were no women reporters when I was young. I wanted to be Nancy Drew,” she said. 

She said she became a politics junkie when she was around 16 years old, and that she probably knew even more about the political landscape then than she does now. She was “fascinated” with the things happening in government and public life.

They always say journalism is the first draft of history, well I wanted to write the first draft and be there.

After reading “The Making of A President 1960″ by journalist Theodore White, Totenberg said she knew she didn’t want to be directly involved in politics, but rather a spectator of it.

“I realized that’s really what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a witness to history,” she said. “They always say journalism is the first draft of history, well I wanted to write the first draft and be there.”

This keynote was in partnership with the Student Press Law Center / Photo by Joe Severino

Dean asked Totenberg what it was like working as a woman in her early reporting days when journalism was very much a male-dominated profession. 

“Well, it turns out it was kind of lonely,” Totenberg said. “Every place I worked I was the only woman for the first probably at least 10 years of my professional life.”

She was recruited to work at NPR in 1975, which, at the time, was a smaller operation with limited resources.

“The only way you could get really good people to work for that little money was to hire women,” she said.

Reporting on Anita Hill 

Dean asked Totenberg to break down her 1991 coverage of Anita Hill’s allegations that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. It’s one of Totenberg’s most famous stories. Her reporting on the allegations prompted the Senate Judiciary Committee to re-open Thomas’ confirmation hearings.

Totenberg said her critics were harsh in the immediate aftermath.

“I was being attacked really viciously by [Thomas’] supporters, and eventually the Senate subpoenaed my notes, which I had fortunately destroyed way before they were subpoenaed because I could see that down the road,” she said. “The night after I broke the story and I was watching the rage on the Senate floor, and I knew this was not good for me.”

Lady, you need to get a gun.

Based on her lawyer’s advice to win in the court of public opinion, she appeared as a guest on ABC’s Nightline the night after she broke the story, along with former Republican Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming. 

“Periodically and increasingly toward the end [of the show], Alan Simspon would savage me for being unethical,” she said.

Totenberg ended up getting the final words in before the show ended. But as she was walking out of the building, Simpson (who she said she’s now friends with) followed her out, still angry.

“Al came after me and he was waving this journalist code of ethics — I still to this day don’t know what his point was,” she said. “I suggested in a very firm tone that he commit an unnatural act on upon himself.”

After slamming the door and telling the driver to take off, Totenberg said the driver did, then “pulls over and he says to me, ‘lady, you need to get a gun.’”

Upcoming Supreme Court cases

Totenberg and Dean also discussed a number of cases soon to be decided by the Supreme Court, including LGBTQ+ employee discrimination, abortion rights, DACA and guns. 

She talked about how Justice Brett Kavanaugh replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had been the swing vote, has significantly shifted the Court to the right.

“I don’t think there’s much doubt at this point that the Court is going to overturn Roe [v. Wade]. It may not say those magic words, but it will kill it,” she said. “It’s not going to survive, I don’t think [with] this Court majority.”

Totenberg said she expects this current Court to narrow the divide between church and state.

“For as long as I’ve covered the Court, the Court has erected a fairly high wall of separation between church and state,” Totenberg said. “A much more conservative Court in the last 15 or 20 years has dismantled a little bit of that wall, but it’s very clear that this Court is going to move fairly aggressively in the other direction in emphasizing the free exercise of religion as opposed to the wall of separation between church and state.”

Dean asked how the presence of women on the bench has changed the Supreme Court. Totenberg pointed out that former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the court, was alone for 12 years until Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed to the Court. 

Sommer Ingram Dean is a journalist turned First Amendment lawyer. She worked with Nina while interning at NPR in 2013. / Photo by Joe Severino

“[O’Connor] said openly that once Ginsburg was there it was like night and day; the heat was off,” Totnberg said.

Advice to current student journalists

Totenberg fielded multiple questions from the student journalists in the crowd, with a few centering around advice for emerging reporters.

A student asked how Totenberg is able to transform highly complicated legal jargon into understandable content meant for radio. She said almost every legal term has an “English translation” that’s much easier for listeners and readers to understand.

“Just say what it is,” she said. “You don’t just say the Eighth Amendment, you say the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Another student asked about Totenberg’s biggest lessons from working in the industry, especially as a woman in an all-male newsroom.

“Choose. Your. Battles. Carefully,” she said slowly and directly. “Do not have battles you don’t have to have.”

She admitted she had a temper as a young reporter, but learned how to control it.

“If you lose your temper, the person who suffers is you,” she said.

The conference began Oct. 31 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., and runs until Nov. 3. It was put on by the College Media Association and Associated Collegiate Press and had about 1,600 attendees. 

 SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino.

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