Nina Totenberg’s voice is one of the most familiar sounds in public radio. Her work is so well known that NPR even sells a “Nina Totin’ Bag,” which pays homage to the legal affairs correspondent and pokes fun at public broadcasting for its classic pledge-drive gift.
Totenberg began her career at NPR nearly forty years ago, and she was covering the justice system for The National Observer even before that. When she began reporting about the Supreme Court—long before any woman had been appointed a justice — she was the only woman working in her newsroom.
I caught up with Totenberg to discuss how things used to be and how much they’ve changed. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.
Take me back to when your career was just getting started in the early 1970s. What would I have seen if I walked into your newsroom at NPR or at The National Observer? What was different compared with today?
Everything. It was all male except for me. When I started, I was the only woman. On the news desk, there were no other women. I think they came to be relatively fond of me but it was trial by fire for a while. They ignored me. It’s really simple. They just ignored me. I was not one of the guys. They didn’t invite me to lunch. They just didn’t acknowledge me.
I’m sure that motivated you to outwork them but I think it would also hurt my feelings.
I think my feelings were hurt but I was sort of used to it by then. There were so few jobs for women in those days, you just had to be grateful you had one. Every place was male dominated. Congress was almost entirely male. The White House was almost entirely male, and so was the staff. So it’s not like there were exceptions.
How did sources treat you differently than your male colleagues?
The bad news was you weren’t one of the guys so you didn’t chum it up with them and go drinking. The good news was they assumed you were young and stupid. I was young. I wasn’t stupid. They would very often say the most incredible things to me because they weren’t concentrating on the fact that I was concentrating on them.
I probably scored a number of scoops that way. It’s just hilarious. One time I was doing a story about junkets on Capitol Hill. I think Northwest [Airlines] had inaugurated a new line to Japan and Korea. They had taken on their maiden voyage most of the members of the Senate Commerce Committee, which of course controlled regulation of the airline industry.
So I did a bunch of interviews with people who went, and then I asked the people who didn’t go why they didn’t. I remember [Montana Democrat] Mike Mansfield said something of great integrity. He just said, “Don’t do that kind of thing.” But there was a senator, [New Hampshire Republican] Norris Cotton, who said, “Oriental food gives me the trots.” And that was the subhead in the story! It was just too good.
At one point, President Nixon had been considering naming Senator [Robert] Byrd to the Supreme Court. I asked Byrd to come off the floor and talk to me — it was a lot easier to get people to come off the floor and talk to you in those days. He was very thrilled to be considered and he just told me everything, absolutely everything, completely everything. I don’t know what he was thinking, but he probably wouldn’t have been quite that candid for a male reporter.
When you look around today, how much better is it for women in journalism now?
I just don’t think there’s any comparison. I think for the most part women have completely cracked the egg and the glass ceiling. Ten years ago, women were reporters and editors but not executive editors and not network chieftains, so to speak. But that’s not true anymore. I think that, really, for all practical purposes, [female journalists] can’t complain. Women have no basis for complaint.
There are times — over childcare issues or whatever — where there can come a moment, but for the most part it’s just night and day. More women really are equals in the workplace. Well, in the news workplace. That’s not true in a lot of other areas of professional life. It’s certainly not true in the business world.
I’m curious what it’s been like for you to cover an era in which we’ve gone from having had zero female Supreme Court justices to now having had four.
I guess I somewhat agree with what all the members of the current Supreme Court and Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor say. Women don’t make different decisions per se. But I do think that one’s experience does make a difference. And therefore, if you’ve experienced being discriminated against or not taken seriously or shut out of a discussion — and all women have experienced that, including today — it does change your appreciation for a situation. If you had those experiences, then when those kinds of cases come to you, you have some understanding of it that a male justice might not.
You’re friendly with some of the justices. What’s something you’ve come to learn about them that would surprise people?
I think people who meet Justice [Antonin] Scalia are most surprised because he’s such a charming and engaging and fun person. He’s the kind of person you want to sit next to at dinner. They have this idea of him as a dour conservative. He is a conservative, but he’s not dour. He has an interesting mind and he’s interested in all kinds of subjects from music to art. And he is very funny. And what surprises people about Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg most is she is this tiny little person and she is such a force to be reckoned with.
Can you imagine a time when the Supreme Court of the United States would have more justices who are women than men? All women even?
I don’t think that it’ll be all women. I certainly hope not. I thought it was a bad idea when it was all men and I think it would be a bad idea for it to be all women. The Supreme Court of Canada has had a majority of women and I would expect in the future the majority in the United States would be women. But I don’t know when.
It’s astounding to think how much has already changed in your career.
It’s been quite an interesting life to have lived. From a time when I was first looking for a job and people would say to you, “We don’t hire women,” to a time when that’s definitely not the case in our profession.
It’s not that sex discrimination is gone from the workplace. It’s hardly gone. But it is probably more gone from journalism than it is from a lot of professions. One of the stories I like to tell is when — and this was the late ’70s or early ’80s—I was thinking of leaving NPR. And I had lunch with a guy I knew well and liked and respected. He was bureau chief at a major newspaper chain. And I would lay odds that he doesn’t remember this because he would be ashamed to remember this. So I said I was thinking of leaving NPR, and he said, “But you know we already have our woman.” My heart sank on one hand, and on the other I thought, “You’re smarter than that! How can you even think that way?”
Well thank you for putting up with all of that B.S. for us — for the women who became journalists after you.
It’s a very great thing to have it not be that way any more. I go to talk to high schoolers and I tell them these stories. They look at me like I have three heads. They have just not experienced it at all.