No books, no candy: Reporter in limelight after Anita Hill story

February 26, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Last weekend on a plane somewhere over the Caribbean, an emotional flight attendant grabbed reporter Nina Totenberg's hand, clutched it and thanked her for bringing the issue of sexual harassment to public attention.

Months after she and Newsday reporter Timothy Phelps broke the news of law professor Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the National Public Radio reporter remains surprised by the wide-ranging effects of the story.

"I didn't realize what a festering wound this [sexual harassment] was on the female working population," the 48-year-old reporter said yesterday by phone. She will be speaking about the Supreme Court tomorrow night at the University of Maryland School of Law.

"When I did the story, I just thought it was a very important political story, it never occurred to me that it was a sociological story as well, a phenomenon that had gone largely ignored."

Since the hearings last October, Ms. Totenberg has become something of a media person's media person with profiles in People and Vanity Fair. She has been deluged with requests to write books and articles -- she has refused -- and to lecture and grant interviews. And people have sent candy and flowers.

"But I had to throw the candy away: First, because I might get chubby. And second, because it might be poisoned."

Indeed with celebrity has come criticism. The Wall Street Journal published an op/ed piece saying that Ms. Totenberg had taken quotes from a Washington Post 1973 article about former Massachusetts Sen. Thomas "Tip" O'Neill without crediting the publication.

And many observers of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings blamed news leaks for the "soap opera spectacle," which they said hurt the dignity of the Supreme Court nomination process, the Senate and the personal lives of both Justice Thomas and Ms. Hill.

After the Senate began an investigation to find the source or sources of the story, Mr. Phelps and Ms. Totenberg were subpoenaed to appear before Senate special independent counsel Peter E. Fleming Jr.

Both reporters refused to reveal their sources. Appearing before Mr. Fleming on Monday, Ms. Totenberg defended her decision as a matter of personal honor -- "I gave my word and I will not break it" -- as a professional journalist maintaining the confidentiality of her sources, and as an American protected by the First Amendment.

"You have to understand that what this process is aimed at is the very heart of a free press," she says. "But for the confidential sources that helped me with this story, the American public would, quite literally, not have known about it."

In 1987, Ms. Totenberg's reporting also captured headlines when she broke the story that ex-Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg had smoked marijuana while he was teaching law at Harvard.

The legal affairs correspondent has covered the Supreme Court for 23 of her 27 years as a reporter. Before joining NPR in 1975, she worked for New Times magazine, the National Observer, Roll Call, the Peabody Times and the Boston Record American.

These days, Ms. Totenberg figures she files reports for NPR an average of four days a week. She also works as a special correspondent for the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.

"Since the hearings, it's been a pretty wild pace, with the sort of celebrity status of it all. But nothing has changed at NPR. I still have to grind out pieces every day. I still have a little cubby hole and no secretary and voice mail to take my messages."

And she still takes it personally when people don't take to her. During the hearings last year, for instance, she became known for a heated exchange with Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., after he attacked her journalistic ethics.

"The most difficult thing for me about my job is that a lot of people don't like me. And I'm like every other human being: I like to be liked.

"As you saw during the hearings, people can get very, very angry. It's very upsetting. I think that's more of a female reaction than a male reaction, because women are accommodators by nature. In our personal lives we like to try to smooth things over and fix situations.

"But the job of a journalist is not to fix a situation."

She credits her 76-year-old husband Floyd Haskell, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, with keeping her spirits buoyed throughout the hearings.

"My husband is of another generation and is perfectly willing to say to me 'You're being excessive.' Through this whole thing he said, 'You're absolutely dead on right about this. . . . Don't let anybody get you to to back off, this is a major story that must be told.'

"One very high-ranking Republican woman -- I'll leave who it was to your imagination -- told me, "Just let it roll off of your back.' "

Totenberg to speak

Nina Totenberg will speak about the Supreme Court at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow in Westminster Hall of the University of Maryland School of Law. The talk is free to the public. For more information call (410) 576-9462.

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