Nina Totenberg reflects on witnessing history in University Lectures talk

Nina Totenberg discusses covering history in University Lecture

The award-winning NPR journalist discusses political scandals, journalism career Tuesday.
Published: March 8, 2019
NPR broadcaster Nina Totenberg at Hendricks Chapel on March 5, 2019
NPR reporter Nina Totenberg, in conversation with College of Law Dean Craig Boise, reflects on her time as a young journalist for a crowd of students and community members at Hendricks Chapel Tuesday night.

Award-winning journalist Nina Totenberg spoke about her experiences covering the justice system on Tuesday night during a lecture in Hendricks Chapel. It was the first event of SU’s spring 2019 University Lectures series.

Totenberg is a veteran legal affairs correspondent for NPR. Prior to that, she contributed to publications such as The New York Times Magazine and The Harvard Law Review. She and Craig Boise, Dean of Syracuse University’s College of Law, discussed her most high-profile stories, current controversial issues in the legal system and what directions she sees courts heading in the future.

Totenberg said that she first knew she wanted to be a journalist when she was as young as 13 years old.

“I came to the realization that I couldn’t be Nancy Drew,” Totenberg said. “Over time as I got older, I knew that I wanted to be a witness to history in some way.”

Achieving that dream proved difficult for Totenberg due to the lack of positions available for women early in her career. After working as a print journalist at numerous publications, she went on to work at the National Observer, where she was often the only woman in the newsroom.

It was during this time that Totenberg began reporting on the activities of the Supreme Court and all of the well-known names and cases involved with it. She mentioned notable stories surrounding Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, saying that the latter resulted in the creation of her own FBI file.

Her most famous story, however, is the breakthrough report she conducted on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. In this report Totenberg recorded University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual assault against Thomas.

“I smelled a rat, called everyone I knew, and what was interesting was how everyone knew of Anita Hill. I had heard this months earlier, but then it died. So I called her up, she gave me an interview. And the rest is history,” she said.

When asked to compare Hill’s hearing to that of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in late 2018, Totenberg paused, then explained that Hill, “was treated as either a lying and vindictive woman or crazy. This was a political fight and it didn’t matter to either side. We’ve come a long way now,” she said.

Totenberg went on to discuss how the Supreme Court has changed in the last few decades. She described the court as being “hotter,” with the justices being more ideologically divided than ever before on controversial issues such as abortion, the scope of executive power and immigration. She added that it is impossible to tell what topics will dominate in the future.

“When I first started, it was either about Vietnam or the Civil Rights Movement. Those are not questions that dominate the docket today. I think it’s very difficult to know what to expect next,” she said.

Near the end of the lecture, an audience member asked Totenberg how it felt to finally have women on the Supreme Court, given her own struggles in a male-dominated profession. She smiled and recalled a statement made by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated.

“It was great. It completely changed the equation,” she said. “Like I no longer had that pressure that comes with being the only one.”