2019 Laureate Prize Winner
2019 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in the Humanities and Public Service
Nina Totenberg, NPR's highly acclaimed legal affairs correspondent, is a creative and intrepid reporter in a medium she and her colleagues revolutionized. She shines a light on the inner workings of the nation's highest court and helps audiences understand the impact of headline-making judicial cases that profoundly affect America’s future. Newsweek has called her “the crème de la crème” of NPR.
The oldest daughter of the famous violinist Roman Totenberg, Nina entered Boston University in 1962 as a journalism major, but dropped out less than three years later because, in her own words, she "wasn’t doing brilliantly." Writing for a Boston newspaper in her 20s she covered everything — stories for the women’s page, the police beat, the courts, education policy, “whatever.” She learned her way around Capitol Hill in D.C. as Roll Call’s only staffer, then added the Supreme Court as her new beat when she took a job at the weekly National Observer. She started the job by calling each associate Supreme Court justice to ask if she could drop by to meet them. To her surprise, most agreed -- and she simply asked each one how he (it was an all-male court back then) did his job. Their answers provided her with a valuable education.
Totenberg has always been gutsy and outspoken. In 1971, she broke a story about Nixon’s secret list of candidates for the Supreme Court. She also wrote a profile of J. Edgar Hoover, and he demanded she be fired. But the paper refused and her editor printed Hoover’s letter in the paper -- along with a rebuttal of his complaints. At the magazine New Times, she wrote an article entitled "The Ten Dumbest Members of Congress.” Needless to say, it raised a lot of hackles.
She began working at National Public Radio in 1975, when NPR and its flagship show All Things Considered were in their infancy. She’d already established her reputation as a reporter who got stories others couldn’t, but for years she still had to cover the Justice Department, the rest of the federal judiciary, both congressional judiciary committees and the intelligence community —beats that are now covered by 10 full-time correspondents.
She investigated stories about the Watergate appeals and Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee William Rehnquist’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. And in 1991, she broke the story of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, causing the Senate to reopen the confirmation hearings to examine the evidence. Totenberg remembers, “Today we think of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings as a watershed in American political and social life. But as I walked into the Russell Senate Office Building in the early hours of October 11, 1991, I had no notion of what those hearings would come to mean.”
“The hearings ripped open the subject of sexual harassment like some sort of long-festering sore,” Totenberg observes. Female voters rebelled, and four new women won Senate victories in 1992. There was an avalanche of lawsuits, and within 2 years the number of sexual harassment complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Fair Employment Practices Agencies had increased by nearly 72 percent.
NPR received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for its gavel-to-gavel coverage — anchored by Totenberg — of both the original hearings and the inquiry into Anita Hill's allegations, and for Totenberg's reports and exclusive interview with Hill. That same reporting earned Totenberg the Long Island University George Polk Award for excellence in journalism, the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative reporting, and the Carr Van Anda Award from the Scripps School of Journalism. She received the prestigious Joan S. Barone Award for excellence in Washington-based national affairs and public policy reporting, which also acknowledged her coverage of Justice Thurgood Marshall's retirement.
In 1998 Totenberg was the first radio journalist to be named Broadcaster of the Year and honored with the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcasting from the National Press Foundation. She is also the recipient of the American Judicature Society's first-ever award honoring a career body of work in the field of journalism and the law. She has been honored seven times by the American Bar Association for continued excellence in legal reporting and has received a number of honorary degrees.
Totenberg continues to dig deep as she investigates what’s happening in the courts and in our culture, piecing together nuanced stories that inform all of us about the implications of important legal decisions on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.