How Nina Totenberg handled the ‘volcano’ set off by covering Anita Hill’s sexual harassment charges

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Allison Shelley/NPR

As its title suggests, much of Nina Totenberg’s new memoir, Dinners with Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships (Simon & Schuster), focuses on her decades-long friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But she also shares details of her personal life and reflects on episodes from her long career covering the Supreme Court for NPR, including breaking the news of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas. As Totenberg navigated the fallout of the revelation, she writes, she “wondered almost daily if that one story was worth what was happening to me.” In this excerpt, she recounts the impact of covering “a phenomenon that had gone largely ignored.”

As time passed, I realized it was worth it, even the awful parts. Part of what changed my mind was a small thing, a plane trip with Floyd [former Sen. Floyd Haskell, then Totenberg’s husband]. We had scheduled a quick vacation to the Caribbean before my special counsel interrogation, while the Court was on its February hiatus. On board, a flight attendant recognized me. She grabbed my hand and would not let it go, profusely thanking me for bringing attention to the issue of sexual harassment and helping to start a public discussion. And that was the thing. I, who had spent years gently fending off unwanted advances, had not fully realized what a festering wound this issue was for so many working women. When I reported the story, my first thought was that this was a very important political story. It never occurred to me that it was a sociological story as well, about a phenomenon that had gone largely ignored, and about which there was a volcano of experience and emotion ready to erupt.

Initially, I didn’t know that women all over the country were sending thousands of faxes to offices on Capitol Hill. But gradually, I came to realize that many, perhaps even most women, had thought they were alone, that what happened to them had not happened to others. And I came to realize that I was one of them; I had for too long accepted the unacceptable.

I saw something else too. I saw how female members of the House, who walked to the Senate to ask for the hearings to be reopened, were denied access to the Senate floor and treated like second-class citizens. And eventually I also saw that women had real power at the voting booth. In November 1992, a year after the Thomas-Hill hearings, many women, mostly Democrats, were elected to office. The media dubbed it “The Year of the Woman.” Indeed, Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois beat Alan Dixon, a fellow Democrat who had voted for Thomas.

I also developed a deeper level of gratitude for my friends. When I faced a withering onslaught, so many of them leaped to my defense, not only privately, but publicly. Female journalists who were colleagues, like Cokie [Roberts], or even competitors, like Rita Braver of CBS News, put their good names on the line to support me. When Sam Donaldson of ABC News called to say that he wanted to do a story on me for the network’s nighttime show, 20/20, Cokie was sitting right there — our desks abutted each other. I looked in her direction and said to Sam, “Let me call you back.” I sort of knew this might not be a good idea, and I had the good sense to ask Cokie. “Well for God’s sake, don’t do something that’s just about you because it will be too contentious,” she said. We ended up with a segment on Cokie, Linda, and me, and Diane Sawyer, not Sam, did the interview. Linda [Wertheimer]’s husband, Fred, told me that “whatever they do, whatever they ask you, just smile, because nobody will remember what they asked you if you just smile.” It was great advice, and I smiled my way through many interviews after that.

Remarkably, two retired Supreme Court justices, William Brennan and Lewis Powell, also came to my defense, allowing themselves to be quoted in Vanity Fair. Powell said to writer Ann Louise Bardach — in what she described as his “rolling Southern accent” — “I’ve known her [Nina] since I was sworn in, which was January 1972, and I generally have a high opinion of her. She takes great care to get the facts straight.”

During one of our subsequent lunches, I also bemoaned to Justice Powell the fact that it was miserable to have so many people so angry with me, that I really liked to be liked. And he paused and said, “Really, Nina, you can’t do what you do for a living and expect a lot of people to like you.” Of course, he was right, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to try.

… [N]one of this would have happened without Anita Hill. If she had refused to talk to anyone, or said “I don’t want to testify,” the entire story would have gone away. If I had some tough moments in the aftermath of the story, it was a pittance compared to her. While my speaking fees went up, the nastiness that she faced in Oklahoma continued almost unabated, and after five years, she would resign her professorship at the [University of Oklahoma] law school and ultimately take a position at Brandeis University, where she still teaches. She paid an exceptionally high price for coming forward.

While our names have often been linked, I didn’t meet Hill in person until 2022. My 1991 interview with her was over the phone, and what she said was pretty much the same as her subsequent Senate testimony. But the FBI’s written account of their agents’ interview with her is quite different, which argues that law enforcement should tape their interviews. I have no reason to believe that she would have said one thing to me and under oath before the U.S. Senate but something different to the FBI. It is more likely that the agents got something wrong or misunderstood her.

I did meet Clarence Thomas a few months after his confirmation. The Supreme Court press corps historically holds a welcome event to meet the new justice, and his welcome reception was scheduled in January. These events are opportunities to say hello and ask a few questions. I introduced myself, and we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries as if absolutely nothing had happened. But I also, unlike my usual self, did not ask a single question that afternoon. For understandable reasons, he’s never granted me an interview, and when we attend the same social events, I keep my distance.

The next Supreme Court confirmation I would cover would be Ruth’s. 

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