how i get it done

NPR Correspondent Nina Totenberg Watches Billions After a Day at the Supreme Court

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Nina Totenberg is a journalism legend. In the course of her impressive career, she covered the Pentagon Papers, suffered the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover (after writing a profile of him), and broke the story of the Anita Hill allegations against Clarence Thomas. She’s also been covering the Supreme Court for NPR for decades and has won countless awards for her stellar and groundbreaking reporting. Totenberg lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, David, a trauma surgeon. Here’s how she gets it done.

On not having a morning routine:
There are no typical mornings. There are opinion days at the court; there are argument days; there are days I’m just sitting and reading briefs and getting up every hour or two to walk around and clear my head. There are also days when I’m cleaning up email that I haven’t tended to in a while, and days when I’m covering trials. I might be doing some sort of constitutional story about a constitutional question that’s in the news, whether it’s presidential pardons and what the limits are or not. I might go to a lower-court confirmation hearing if it’s particularly controversial or I’m interested in it for some reason. There isn’t just a typical day.

What she brings to the Supreme Court:
First of all, you’re not allowed to bring anything electronic into the courtroom. You can only bring paper and pens — that’s it — and even those get checked before you walk in. So you can only bring very old-fashioned materials. But there’s a press room in the building; it’s pretty big. They redid it some years ago. Now it’s mostly divided into very small cubicles, and there are some long tables. You couldn’t use it as a permanent office.

I have a cubicle there, and it has two shelves and a place to put a laptop — but I’m probably the only person left who has an electronic typewriter there. Before, I used the typewriter for anything that I would have to write very quickly. But now the deadline is so quick. We’ve gone from “Take your own sweet time; get back here; file a spot” to “We need a spot as soon as you can get it” to “No, just come on the air.” We have a booth in the press room, and I’m on the air from there a lot, especially in June. I also bring a tape recorder and microphone into the building with me (but not the courtroom) that I take outside to interview people after an oral argument.

On her evening routine:
I’m fortunate that I married this trauma surgeon who is a fabulous cook, which is great because I was always a pretty good cook but never liked cooking. My late husband, Floyd [Haskell], didn’t know how to cook at all, so I had to do everything. Now, by the time I get home — most nights, not all nights — my husband David’s got dinner well underway. So I eat his very good food and then I’m very happy to veg out watching something totally mindless like Blue Bloods, Law & Order, Billions, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — something really that does not ask too much of me. The one I have the most problems with is Billions because there’s nobody for me to root for. Everybody is such an odious character. I just started watching it and I said to my husband the entire night: “The thing that’s wrong with this is that everybody — men and women — is behaving badly.”

On her friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
Well, I had a long friendship with Justice Scalia, too. I knew him long before he was on the court as well and I miss him a lot. I value my friendship with her, and I valued it with him, too. They’re both remarkable people that I’ve been privileged to know and like and have them like me, too.

When my late husband was very sick for a long time — almost five years — [Ruth] told me,You’re spending too much time at the hospital. You have to go back to work. It won’t be the best work you’ve ever done, but nonetheless, it will be good work and it will keep your head above water and you’ll be a better wife to him as a result.” It was absolutely the best advice anybody gave me, and it’s advice I give to anybody whose spouse is very sick. Periodically, because he was in the hospital for a year, she would just sort of scoop me up and take me to the opera with her and Marty or invite me to dinner. A while after Floyd died, I remember she was taking me to the opera, and I said,Ruth, I started to date somebody.” She turned around — in my mind’s eye, her head swiveled around — and she said, “I want details now.”

On getting her start in journalism:
I always wanted to be a reporter from the time I was a teenager and realized I wasn’t going to be Nancy Drew. I was really interested in being where the action was and — to be a little schmaltzy about it — being a witness to history. And to be un-schmaltzy, to tell legitimate, true gossip. When I was a teenager, there were very few women reporters. Every newsroom that I was in, for probably the first ten years of my professional life, I was the only woman — or virtually the only woman.

My very first job was for the Record-American in Boston, and I was hired on the women’s page. There was one woman on the police beat, and she was the only other woman at the paper (outside of the women’s page). So I started going out at night as a legman to cover school-committee meetings and the police beat, too. I would sometimes stay out until 3 or 4 a.m. going to fires, the site of murders, and everything else you can think of with the photographer for the paper. He had a police and fire radio in his car, and we would just cruise, going to stories.

After that, at almost everywhere else I worked until I came to work at NPR, either I was the only woman or the only woman in hard news. People were very forthright about saying they didn’t hire women or they didn’t hire women for the night shift. So it was a difficult nut to crack in the beginning. Very difficult.

On becoming a Supreme Court reporter:
I worked for the National Observer for about five years. It was a general-circulation paper put out by Dow Jones, which then owned the Wall Street Journal. It’s probably the place where I learned the most. I did everything from a profile of J. Edgar Hoover — that I worked on for a month, and he then tried to have me fired — to going to Northern Ireland to cover the Troubles. It was a very good training ground. That’s the paper that first assigned me to cover the Supreme Court. I was good at it and won a lot of awards for it. Eventually, I went to work for a magazine and then got hired by National Public Radio to specialize in legal and political coverage.

On breaking the Anita Hill story:
A lot of people wanted to murder me. My voice mail held 36 messages, and in those days people left voice-mail messages — because we’re talking 1991 here. So I would come to work every morning and my voice mail would be full, and most of it would be very abusive. And they subpoenaed me. I refused to tell them much of anything, so the counsel hired by the Senate tried to cite me for contempt. Finally, cooler heads prevailed and the Senate, as a whole, didn’t uphold his recommendation.

It’s exhilarating to break a big story, but you never know whether a big story has legs until it’s been proven to have legs. I really didn’t have any notion whether it would or not; I just knew it was a good story. But for the months that followed, it was extremely unpleasant. It was the earliest very bare-knuckles partisan combat that I recall and that I was right in the center of, and there was a certain amount of sexism to it all in addition. Thank God, by that point there were lots of women who covered the Senate. Otherwise, it would have been even more unpleasant.

On #MeToo:
It’s different. It’s not so much that it’s different in the press; it’s different in the political world. When I broke the Anita Hill story, if Republicans savaged me, they certainly savaged her much more in ways that would be completely unacceptable today. You couldn’t get away with that, and I think both sides of the aisle have learned that lesson. In the end, there’s a certain amount of revisionist history among Republicans about the Hill hearings.

On looking back at her career:
The story that I think is most indelibly ingrained in my brain is the Pentagon Papers case. I was very young, in my 20s. I had never imagined anyone would try to suppress publication of anything. I remember sitting in the Wall Street Journal offices in New York, because I had gone to New York to cover the Court of Appeals argument, and thinking to myself, This could be a very different country. The free press could be a lot less free after this case. I remember that really clearly.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Nina Totenberg Watches Billions After the Supreme Court