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Nina Totenberg: Queen of the Leaks
Nina Totenberg is having a terrible week. She even tries to wangle out of our interview, then only reluctantly agrees to it. Since she read portions of Anita Hill's confidential affidavit to National Public Radio's nine million stunned listeners on October 6- very nearly torpedoing Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court nomination-she has quickly discovered the downside of journalistic celebrity. Although Totenberg has been well known to press hounds throughout her twenty-year career, the Anita Hill leak, which incited a weeklong national television marathon and forever changed how American politicians think about women, has rocketed her into the front ranks of media fame. In what Totenberg calls a "shoot the messenger" diversionary tactic, the spotlight suddenly swung away from Clarence Thomas, even Anita Hill, and smack onto Nina Totenberg
First, a feverish Alan Simpson, the Republican Senator from Wyoming, assailed Totenberg's methods, motives and ethics while both were guesting on Nightline. Following the show, Simpson accosted her in the street where the two had a full tilt epithet-strewn melée. Having barely regained her equanimity from attacks from conservative senators who accused her of ruining the lives of both Thomas and Hill, Totenberg then found herself at the bull's-eye center of a media catfight among the Washington press corps. She's not sure if it's been the worst week of her life, she says, but "it certainly has been in the top five." Sitting in her cramped, corner NPR cubicle, Totenberg answers the continually ringing phone, fielding her calls by pretending to be someone else. Although there is plenty of prestige and power to be had by working for NPR, there are few materialistic rewards. Totenberg does not have a private office or a secretary. Her salary of $65,000 is closer to Peter Jennings's wardrobe budget than to his earnings. "Who should I say is calling? Can I tell her what this is about?" she asks over and over again, deciding whether or not the caller is a quack. Owing to her reputation for breaking stories, she is the constant recipient of scoops, tips and leaks. "They fling them over her transom," says her colleague Linda Wertheimer, a twenty-five year veteran reporter and the host of NPR's daily news show, All Things Considered.
Totenberg looks smaller and softer than she does on her frequent Nightline and MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour appearances. With her blue eyes and strawberry- blonde hair, wearing a calf-length, cream-colored ensemble with sensible heels, she could be Central Casting's pick for the role of a Supreme Court reported. Still, it is the voice that gets you. Like her fellow divas at NPR, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer, Totenberg has one of those voices, at once, commanding and calming people never tire of listening to, a voice that says, "I have some bad news but there's nothing to worry about."
Totenberg, who is forty-seven, was born and raised Scarsdale, New York. She dropped out of Boston University for a job at the Boston Record-American. Eager to be near the country's political pulse, she moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968, writing for the Roll Call until she landed a job at the now defunct National Observer. It was at the Observer that she carved out her beat, the Supreme Court, which has remained her primary stomping ground for more than two decade. During her five-year stint at the Observer, Totenberg put herself on the map with a crackling profile F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, earning Hoover's enmity for the rest of his life. Totenberg continued her career at New Times, a sassy magazine that lived and died in the seventies; there she penned a wicked manifesto entitled "The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress."
Totenberg has been NPR's legal-affairs correspondent since 1975, long enough to witness its transformation from an alternative-fringe outpost to a mainstream media institution and Washington powerhouse. For the serious players in the nation's capitol, listening to NPR news is as de rigueur as reading The Washington Post or watching Nightline. Although lacking the glamour of television, NPR provides its reporters more than six hours of daily radio time to showcase their goods. As a result, all of "the troika," as Wertheimer, Roberts, and Totenberg are known, are frequently called to guest on television.
Although the Anita Hill story may be the crowning coup of Totenberg's career to date, it is only the latest in a stream of scoops. She has been lauded for her coverage of the Watergate trials, the doomed G. Harold Carswell nomination, Iran-Contra, Chief Justice William Rehnquist's questionable past, the Bork battle, the trials and tribulations of Edwin Meese and his cohort William Bradford Reynolds. Clarence Thomas is not the only Supreme Court nominee who has been jeopardized by Totenberg's revelations. In 1987, she blew the nomination of Douglas Ginsburg out of the water by revealing that the bearded Harvard scholar had been a habitual dope smoker.
"For a long, long time, Nina has consistently done terrific work," says reporter and author Nicholas Von Hoffman. "So much of broadcast journalism is mindlessness, but Nina begins where most reporters end. It really makes her outstanding." Among Totenberg's fans are at least two Supreme Court justices, both recently retired, who were willing to speak about her the record. "A fine reporter," Justice William Brennan told me. "I've known her since I was sworn in, which was January, 1972," said Justice Lewis Powell in his rolling Southern accent, "and I generally have a high opinion of her. She takes great care to get the facts straight. Not surprisingly, Totenberg is on a first-name basis with virtually all of the clerks and secretaries at the Supreme Court and with many of the wives of the justices. She has also been known to socialize with several of the justices. It is precisely her chumminess with this august group that has incited a slew of heated rumors throughout the years. The most insistent gossip has it that she had an affair in the seventies with the late Justice Potter Stewart, who was married. Rita Braver, who covers the Court for CBS, says she has no personal knowledge about the alleged affair but says, "Nina knows that it's out there. Once she told me, `Everyone always says I got stories because I slept with a Supreme Court justice,' but I didn't have the nerve to ask if she did." Totenberg says she and Stewart were friends, but indignantly denies the sexual allegation, attributing it to the fact that "there were virtually no women reporters back then, and I think the men I worked with could not imagine me getting stories any other way."
Totenberg's critics burst into a chorus of "Foul!" in 1977, when she reported an astonishingly insider item concerning the Court's disposition toward an appeal from former Nixon top dogs and Watergate conspirators, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and John Mitchell. Totenberg reported that the Court had voted 5 -3 against reviewing the infamous case, and that all three dissenters were Nixon appointees. The report stunned many, because Court votes concerning appeals are held in secret. Moreover, the story claimed that Chief Justice Warren Burger, one of the Nixonians, had postponed announcing the outcome of the vote in hopes of persuading others on the Court to change their minds. Totenberg's story embarrassed the Court and raised potential legal problems concerning the decision, not to mention a few eyebrows. The New York Post even ran a gossip item proclaiming that Justice Stewart, "said to be a close friend of Totenberg's," was the "most popular choice" as the story's source and decried the charge as "sexist."
Bill Kovach, the former New York Times editor, now curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation, is inclined to agree. "It's astounding to me how Nina becomes a lightning rod for other journalists. She is one of the most knowledgeable and aggressive reporters in the business but whenever she breaks a story, the first reaction in the Washington press corps is `What do you want? She's sleeping with a justice or someone else.' No one says these things about any male reporter, many of whom wouldn't think twice about sleeping with someone to get a story.
Even Totenberg's toughest critics concede that she deserves plenty of glory for the Anita Hill scoop. (Newsday's Tim Phelps actually broke the story the night before NPR's broadcast, but only Totenberg got her hands on a copy of Hill's confidential affidavit, much of which she read on the air.) As far back as July, Totenberg says "there were sexual harassment rumors," circling the nomination of Clarence Thomas, "but I couldn't nail them down." She discover Anita Hill's name until much later, "but I knew about her before I got the affidavit. . . . For me, the affidavit was the icing on the cake. I had plenty to go with before that. . .and I sort of stumbled over it by accident." NPR vice president for news Bill Buzenberg says that Totenberg had the Hill affidavit for five days before spilled the beans. During that time, Totenberg found and interviewed Anita Hill in Oklahoma, then found a corroborating witness, Susan Hoerchner, the state judge who ended up testifying before the Judiciary Committee,. Hoerchner's interview "was enormously important to me," says Totenberg "because even after I checked Anita Hill's credentials up the wazoo and everybody said she was a saint, that her integrity was the highest, that she was a Bork supporter, a conservative and an Evangelical- still she is only one person. And I wanted some evidence that this wasn't a story that suddenly came out now." Rita Braver says, "This was a well-reported story that went beyond circus reporting. Nina was scared of the story and that's why she worked so hard on it. Anyone who broke the story would have got a lot of flack."
"Nobody has disputed the truth or accuracy of my story," says Totenberg, "that a credible witness made a serious allegation to the Judiciary Committee that largely was not investigated...Hill's name had been forwarded to the Judiciary Committee, but they dropped the ball. They said, `Look, she wants confidentiality. Goodbye. We're not going to send any investigators to the E.E.O.C.; the chairman is not going to talk to you. Nothing.' And then some senators got wind of it, I'm told, and basically pitched a fit." Finally, Democratic committee Chairman Joe Biden sent the F.B.I. out to interview Hill. "I don't think there even would have been an F.B.I. report if other senators hadn't objected to Biden's failure to investigate," says Totenberg. "Then the reports came back, and they did nothing with them." Moreover, the first time most of the senators on the committee saw the F.B.I. report was the night before the committee voted. Although many liberals were quick to blame committee Republicans for burying Anita Hill's allegations, the initial decision not to investigate further was Biden's. Several longtime Capitol observers say that Biden simply never got it - never understood that sexual harassment was a serious charge. Nor was he alone on the committee with his miscalculation, according to insiders. And Thomas' supporters couldn't have been more pleased with Biden's myopia. One of Orin Hatch's top aides told me, "We think Biden did just fine."
Baffled by the committee's inertia, Anita Hill finally wrote her own affidavit, which she submitted to the committee. Senator Paul Simon, who was the only committee member who bothered to phone Hill prior to the vote, says that she "asked me to distribute copies of her statement to all the members of the Senate, but to keep her name confidential. I said, `You can't distribute it to one hundred senators and keep the thing confidential. You have to make a very difficult decision whether to go public or not.' " Still, Hill could have met with the Judiciary Committee in closed session, one of several options never extended to her. "It could have been done," says Simon and "in hindsight, that would have been the smart thing to do." When Hill decided not to disclose her identity, someone decided to disclose it for her.
After Totenberg made Hill's charges public, Thomas supporters went into an apoplectic fury over the leak and sought to divert the focus from the substance of the charges to the evil of leaking. Clarence Thomas, who had received the lowest rating from the American Bar Association of any Supreme Court nominee in history, had been sold to the American public on the basis of character - the impoverished black child from the backwoods of Georgia who had triumphed in life. "They built his reputation on character." says Totenberg. "And when his character was assailed, there was very little left to rest on." When I asked a senior aide of a conservative Republican on the Judiciary Committee why the administration didn't offer a black nominee with stronger qualifications, she answered bluntly, "There aren't any." meaning, of course, non deemed to be both qualified and politically correct.
Although Totenberg has taken her share of body blows over the years, she says she never foresaw the very personal reaction against her generated by the Anita Hill story. Two days after breaking the story, Totenberg found herself on Nightline defending her honor against a snarling Alan Simpson, a staunch Thomas supporter. "Let's not pretend you're objective here," Simpson blasted at her. "That just would be absurd." Comparing herself to Anita Hill, a somewhat flustered Totenberg responded, "I, too, don't want to be the messenger who's blamed."
When the show ended, the lanky Simpson pursued Totenberg outside the building, lecturing her on ethics, which precipitated a scalding temper fit from Totenberg as she hurried into a waiting limo (provided for Nightline guests). Simpson, who held the door ajar so that she couldn't leave, insists, "I did not scream, shriek or shout. "I asked her, `Did you ever read the code of professional journalistic ethics? How about the part that says you respect the privacy and dignity of those you deal with?' Then I told her, `Rest easy, you brought another one down,' " a reference to Totenberg's Ginsburg/marijuana story. "She said, 'You I are an evil, ugly, bitter person and all your colleagues hate you," claims Simpson. "And she said, `You big shit. Fuck you!' Three times she said it!"
"He was in a complete rage. He was out of control," responds Totenberg. "I said, in essence, 'You're a bully and you're not going to bully me.' " However, she claims she never called him an evil, bitter man, a charge she finds "interesting" and denies saying that everybody hates him. "I don't know that to be true," says Totenberg with a smile. "I certainly did use some choice epithets," she concedes. "I think I told him, `To shut the fuck up.'
The next salvo blew out of a Wall Street Journal editorial written by its Washington bureau chief, Albert Hunt, in which he recalled charges of plagiarism against Totenberg nineteen years ago when she was a reporter for the The National Observer. Days earlier, Totenberg had given an interview to The Washington Post in which she spoke of her own experience with sexual harassment when she was a young reporter at the Observer, implying that it was the cause of her leaving. Wrong, said Hunt, who unearthed a Totenberg profile of Tip O'Neill in which she had copied a significant amount of material - all quotations - from a Post piece written a week earlier by Myra MacPherson. It was plagiarism, Hunt, not sexual harassment, which prompted Totenberg's departure. "Purposeful plagiarism is one of the cardinal sins of journalism from which reporters can never recover their credibility," wrote Hunt. "There is no statute of limitations on that judgement."
Totenberg doesn't deny the charge. "I made a mistake. I have no intention of defending that piece of work as good. It wasn't. On the other hand, I don't think I should be taken out and executed at dawn, which is sort of what he implied in the column." Additionally, she insists that her leaving the Observer had as much to do with ongoing sexual harassment from one of her superiors, whom she declines to identify.
Nicholas von Hoffman, who was an editor at The Washington Post from the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies, says Hunt's charges are trumped-up at best. "At that time, it was an industry practice to borrow quotes, or quote quotes. It was done all the time. I remember, because I was always screaming about it at the Post, which was the first to credit sources. The New York Times was the last. And broadcast journalism still doesn't credit half the time." Steve Isaacs, a seventeen-year veteran of The Washington Post and now associate dean of Columbia School of Journalism says flatly, "It was not only standard to steal quotes from other journals and journalists, it was almost considered wimpish to attribute to others. She is one sensational reporter, and I hold her up to students as one." However, Totenberg's case was notable because she lifted substantial portions of quoted material, not just a phrase or a sentence. Although the practice is now a journalistic taboo, many insiders view "lifting quotes" as far less serious than outright plagiarism, in which did in Alex Haley By week's end there seemed to be a backlash directed at the Journal. Time magazine took a smack at Hunt, questioning his motives and suggesting they may have been more political than moral. "Observers noted that the Journal had editorially championed Thomas and attacked Totenberg for her role in the Hill leaks: What's more, the paper had been criticized for its minimum coverage of Hill's allegations.
Hunt, plainly smarting from the Time piece, said he had brought up the "plagiarism business only because she said she was fired over sexual harassment, which simply wasn't the case." Hunt also said he had no ideological beef. "I thought Anita Hill was telling the truth." He insisted that he would have published Anita Hill's affidavit "in a minute" if he had had it. Since the Journal waited three days before running a substantial story on Hill's charges, it is a claim that some find difficult to believe.
Totenberg sums up the incident as "a stupid mistake. And I have never done it again- that I know of anyway". However, several former and current staffers at Legal Times, a D.C. weekly, claim she did do it again at least once, in 1987. During the Douglas Ginsburg confirmation process, Legal Times reporter Aaron Freiwald had learned that Ginsburg was guilty of some fairly serious résumé inflation, the nominee had said he had considerably more trial experience than he really had. Because Legal Times hit the stands on Mondays, the editors sometimes passed their hot items to other media in exchange for attribution. "Somehow Nina had heard that we had a hot Ginsburg story," recalls one former staffer at Legal Times. "She called us around 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon and said she was going on the air with another Ginsburg story and that she would love to see whatever we had. I told her it concerned résumé inflation. She said if she used it, she would credit us on the air."
A day earlier, Totenberg had stunned Washington with her marijuana scoop on Ginsburg, "I actually walked our story over to her," remembers Aaron Freiwald. At five P.M., Totenberg went on the air with a comprehensive report concerning résumé enhancement and the nominee. She never credited Legal Times. "I was very upset," says Freiwald. "The story bore an alarming resemblance to what I had just giver her." Eric Effron, who was then Legal Times managing editor and is now its publisher, says flatly, "I felt at the time that we were ripped off." Totenberg claims that she had independently discovered the same material. "I remember getting their stuff, but I had the material already and had been working on it for days." Totenberg ways, while conceding, I supposed there may have been one or two language overlaps. I phoned them thinking they had more, but they didn't. Most of my broadcast was an interview with a legal ethics expert."
Cokie Roberts thinks much of the heat that Totenberg gets is simply peer rivalry. "She's clearly the best in her field," says Roberts, "as well as one of the best reporters in Washington." Rita Braver describes Totenberg affectionately as "a character with a lot of character. She is fierce and fearless, and has the nerve to do a lot of things I would never do." Braver recalls that during the Oliver North hearings there were no assigned press seats, but that she and Totenberg invariably landed front-row seats. On a few occasions, however, Totenberg was late and someone took her seat. "Believe me," says Braver, "when Nina showed up, they were not sitting there long." Cokie Roberts says she is awed by Totenberg's grit and high standards. "She'll spend five months chasing a lead and then throw it all away because she's so tough on evidence." "I've had more good stories ruined by the facts," says Totenberg.
Paul Gigot, who authored some of the pro-Thomas editorials in The Wall Street Journal, has no quarrel with Totenberg's methods or standards. "I think the thing that I would criticize Nina for is that she is simply a partisan," says Gigot. I mean she is never going to get a leak that helps a conservative. All her leaks come from enemy side. In the Thomas case, people who wanted to sink the nomination." Totenberg quickly volunteers that she is a registered independent and points out that in the last twelve years, all Supreme Court nominees have been made by Republican presidents.
"The Democrats haven't had a nomination for over two decades,"she says. "The very fact that I've had no Democratic nomineesto check out sort of tilts the scale and makes people think that in some way, I'm biased." She says that while Jimmy Carter had no Supreme Court nominees, he did fill some federal judgeships and one of Carter's nominees, Karen Ann Claus, says Totenberg proudly, "was withdrawn because of a story I did."
Linda Wertheimer speaks of Totenberg's "two personas," - the no-nonsense investigative reporter and her private self. "Nothingbleeds over to her personal life," says Wertheimer. "She has very close relationships with her family and she is very happily married despite a substantial difference in age," a reference to her husband, Floyd Haskell, 75, who she married in 1980. By all accounts, Haskell, a former Senator from Colorado, is a notably robust athletic man who is now writing his second novel. Although Totenberg has foregone having children, she is close to Haskell's children from his first marriage and is a doting aunt to her sister, Amy's kids. "Nina really became Nina when she got married," says her sister Jill, a management consultant. "It was what we call a sea change in my business. She became an even better sister and was able to give so much more of herself." Although she would be a dark horse to win any popularity contest in the Washington press corps, many who have worked with her, offer unstinting praise. "Quite simply, she's the person you call when you're in trouble," says Cokie Roberts. "She would lie down in the street for you."
Totenberg may have been one of the few people in Washingtonwho wasn't surprised by the recent confirmation circus. "I wrote a long piece in the Harvard Law Review about the confirmation processafter Bork," she tells me. "And one of the major points I made was that the Judiciary Committee was a disaster waiting to happen. They don't investigate serious charges . . . When I broke the Ginsburg story, once again it was news to the committee and to the White House. This committee has a history of goofing.
What about the odds of another Abe Fortas scenario? I askTotenberg. Is there any concern that Thomas might have to resign, as LBJ's Fortas did in the sixties, if any more stories surface? "I am sure there is that worry," says Totenberg carefully, adding "but it would take a lot" to force a resignation. However, she has little doubt that Thomas' reputation will survive the sordid hearings. "When you compare it to Justice Black who was an admitted member of the Ku Klux Klan, which is now only a footnote in history, certainly he can survive it. The fact is, we have had undistinguished justices on the Court before. We've had anti-Semites and racists on the Court, and we survived that. If he turns out not to be very good, we can survive that too, and if he turns out to be terrific, all for the better. He could surprise people. He's only forty-three.
The current Court, however, she says, is not in the same league with the Court she covered twenty years ago. "There were a lot of giants on that Court, both conservative and liberal, with Hugo Black and John Harlan at the two poles and Earl Warren, who was a genius of consensus building." She doesn't think there are any current geniuses but says that "Scalia is close. He's not a genius, but he has a wonderfully agile intellect." As for retirement predictions, she says she is not counting on Justice Blackmun, who is eighty-three, to leave any time soon. However, she says that Rehnquist, who just lost his wife, is a possibility. She also doesn't put Justice Stevens, who at seventy-one has been on the Court for sixteen years, out of the running for an early exit.
To the amazement of the most cynical observers, ClarenceThomas' bruising confirmation battle truly dazed the denizens of the District. Suddenly, mea culpa fever gripped the capital. First, Senator Howard Metzenbaum apologized for having asked a confirmation witness about uncorroborated accusations. Then Orrin Hatch apologized to his close pal, Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor for having made the crack, "I know a bridge in Massachusetts I can sell you." The next week during a speech at Harvard, Kennedy repented for the excesses of his life and vowed to do better. The most eloquent recantation came from Alan Simpson, who had been rebuked for outdoing the infamous Senator McCarthy during the Hill-Thomas showdown. In a speech at a roast in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the senator said he was chagrined to see his "good name equated with McCarthy, sleaze, slimeł and much more. I do not blame activist feminine [sic] groups. . .The responsibility is mine." However, without any apology, Arlen Specter, who had interrogated Anita Hill for the Republicans, mysteriously dropped his oft-repeated threat of bringing perjury charges against her.
Fearful of losing momentum, the White House and Thomas insisted on immediate swearing-in, despite the death of Natalie Rehnquist the day before. It seemed to many an unseemly haste, requiring that Justice Byron White, rather than chief justice, deliver the oath. "It clearly irked the Court," says Totenberg. Matters were made worse when the Administration said that Thomas had been fully confirmed only to be publicly admonished by Justice White, who said it would not be official until the Supreme Court investiture on November 1, two weeks later. Somehow Thomas who was clearly champing at the bit, persuaded the powers that be to move the date up one week. The following day, Thomas paid surprise visits on all the justices.
A week later, Thomas again made history by being the first Supreme Court justice to pose for the cover of People magazine.One of the photos accompanying his wife Virginia's teary account of their ordeal had the two of them absorbed in reading the Bible. The story precipitated a revolt at the magazine, with staffers storming into Landon Jones's office. One senior writer felt that " having him on the cover, legitimized his position." The staffer says that People would never have put Virginia Thomas alone on the cover and told the Thomases that it would be a cover story only if the new justice would pose. "We were stunned that he agreed," says the staffer. "It was his first week on the job. Imagine what the other justices thought." "Not much," according to Totenberg, who ran it by Court staffers. "He didn't do himself any favors with the Court,"
She reports. "All was not happy in Mudville."
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans, backed by the President, demanded the creation of a F.B.I. SWAT team to root out the villainous, presumably Democratic staffer or senator who leaked Anita Hill's affidavit. Compromising with the Democrats, the Senate O.K.'d an investigation of both the Anita Hill and the Keating Five leaks. Just how leaky is Washington? Totenberg laughs and says, "It's a sieve
The most popular suspects of the Anita Hill leak were Ricki Seidman of Kennedy's staff and Jim Brudney, who works for Metzenbaum, because of their early contact with Anita Hill. Both flatly deny it. However, each week brings a new odds-on favorite. In late October, the archconservative Washington Times, which is owned by the Reverend Moon, flat out accused Senator Paul Simon of being the leakerin a front-page story. Although the article said the paper had no evidence, or anyone willing to go on the record, it claimed unnamed sources in both Republican and Democrat camps. Simon quickly denied it and attributed the item to White House retribution for his stand against Thomas. The following week, suspicion fell upon Herbert Kohl, the senator from Wisconsin, who also dismissed the charge. Insiders talk of the possibility that one of Anita Hill's friends may have been more than forthcoming. However, as there would be no illegality involved, and hence no political profit, there has been little enthusiasm for this line of inquiry.
It appears that unless the rack is brought out no one is likely to confess. Senate Republicans, who pooh-poohed Anita Hill's glowing polygraph -test results, are hardly in the position now to ask staffers to submit to lie detectors. And ultimately, when push comes to shove, only one person can definitively identify the leaker, - and Nina Totenberg ain't talking.
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