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Doctor of Humane Letters to NPR’s Totenberg

Legal reporter closes the circle decades after last class

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Nina Totenberg, veteran legal affairs reporter for National Pubic Radio, will receive an honorary degree at the 138th Commencement exercises on Sunday. Photo by Steve Barrett

Some four decades after her last semester at Boston University, veteran National Public Radio legal affairs reporter Nina Totenberg has at last capped off her educational journey.

“I have more than a dozen honorary degrees, but this one is special because it finally closes the circle,” she says.

Totenberg, daughter of famed violinist Roman Totenberg, a College of Fine Arts music professor emeritus, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the 138th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 22. Totenberg (COM’65) studied journalism at Boston University, but left before graduating to begin her career at the Boston Record-American and the Peabody Times. She then worked in Washington, D.C., reporting for Roll Call, the National Observer, and New Times magazine before moving into broadcast journalism at National Public Radio in 1975. She has since become one of the most respected and recognized figures in American radio.

At NPR, Totenberg developed the legal affairs beat, reporting a number of high-profile stories in the late ’70s and early ’80s, from the Iran-Contra scandal to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg’s smoking marijuana as a Harvard Law School faculty member. Her coverage of legal issues and the U.S. Supreme Court has produced a body of work that has earned numerous awards over the years. The American Bar Association has honored her seven times for continued excellence in legal reporting, and the National Press Foundation named her Broadcaster of the Year in 1998, making her the first radio journalist to receive that award.

In perhaps her best-known story, in 1991 Totenberg was the first to report on an affidavit filed by Anita Hill alleging sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. As a result, the Senate reopened confirmation hearings on his nomination, sparking a nationwide dialogue on sexual harassment in the workplace. Totenberg’s reportage earned her several honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award and a George Polk Award.

She is also a regular panelist on Inside Washington, a weekly syndicated public affairs television program, and has served as the legal affairs correspondent on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS and as a commentator for ABC’s Nightline. In addition, Totenberg is a frequent contributor to print media, including the New York Times Magazine, the Harvard Law Review, and others.

Totenberg will not be giving a speech on Sunday, but she made time recently to answer a few questions from BU Today.

BU Today: Why did you leave BU, and do you have any regrets?
Totenberg: The truth is I really don’t have any regrets. I left early because I was just not a school person. I didn’t love going to classes, and I desperately wanted to be a reporter. My mother, God bless her late, great self, said, “Well, what are you waiting for? Make a try at it. The worst you can do is not succeed, in which case, you can always finish.”

What are the Supreme Court cases that most interest you today?
Obviously, the health care case, which is headed for the Supreme Court, probably next year. The Defense of Marriage Act case, maybe the Prop 8 case from California, those are the biggest ones headed for the court next year. This year, still pending, are the Wal-Mart case, a class action case, and the longest remaining case on the docket so far is the test of a California law that bars the sale of violent videos to minors.

What are the implications of the violent videos case?
There’s only one category of speech that the court has said is not really speech, and you can pass laws vis-à-vis particular laws about children—and that is obscenity. There are no other forms that are exempt from the normal First Amendment protections. This is a case that appears to seek an exemption for violence and minors.

What was your reaction last year when Clarence Thomas’ wife asked for an apology from Anita Hill?
I thought, like everybody else, it was bizarre. I don’t think that was a unique response.

Do you view those hearings, or your coverage of them, any differently with the passage of time?
Particularly for those hearings, since I was in the eye of the storm because I broke the story, I try not to be reflective and not to conclude anything and just to be a “facts and only the facts, ma’am” reporter. I don’t really think about it much. We’re now 20 years out, almost exactly, and I think Justice Thomas and the country have better things to do than rehash those hearings.

You’re not giving a speech on Sunday, but what advice do you have for BU’s journalism and law students?
They’re very different pieces of advice. For journalism, I might say, don’t. I’m not quite sure I see how the large numbers of people who are interested in journalism are going to earn a living in journalism. I have an intern every semester and I’ve had more than one who were aspiring or actual journalists who figured out they couldn’t make a living that way and went into the law instead.

There is so much changing in journalism. While consumers think they have the right to have everything for free, no one has figured out how to make a lot of money off the internet, and I think that offers real problems. There are always a number of people who succeed regardless, who are very talented, but the number of people who are interested in a journalism career far outstrips the number of jobs that I have any notion will be there.

Also, for journalism students, remember that you have an obligation to tell the truth. There’s always this temptation to slightly spin things to make it more amenable to the side you personally agree with. You should avoid that temptation. It doesn’t do anyone any good, least of all the people you are trying to serve: your readers, your viewers, your listeners.

And for law students?
Law hasn’t been easy in the last couple of years because there has been so much downsizing in the recession. What I tell law students is, you have to be a little creative in what you’re going to do. There’s nothing wrong with going to a big firm and trying to make big bucks, but try and remember that you don’t want to be 60 years old with the golden handcuffs on and suddenly you want to do public work and you have no experience with anything but billable hours. So you should have a diverse life, whether you actually work for a DA’s office, the U.S. Attorney’s office, a public interest firm on the right or the left, or you volunteer to help the mayor rewrite the tax code, work on school issues or at regulatory agencies, or do pro bono work for criminal defendants once a month. It doesn’t really matter. Have a diverse life in the law and be willing to reinvent yourself more than once and do something different.

Nina Totenberg (COM’65) is one of six honorary degree recipients at this year’s BU Commencement. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, an advocate on behalf of children and families, will be presented with a Doctor of Law. Jacques Pépin, chef, television personality, author, and BU lecturer, will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. Noted painter and sculptor Frank Stella will be presented with a Doctor of Fine Arts. Baccalaureate speaker Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and a professor at the California Institute of Technology, will receive a Doctor of Science. Commencement speaker Katie Couric, the Emmy Award–winning broadcast journalist and the first solo woman anchor of a network news broadcast, will be awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Doctor of Humane Letters to NPR’s Totenberg

  • Anonymous on 05.20.2011 at 12:31 pm

    Nina Totenberg has integrity and charm

    On behalf of Boston University, Thank you Nina Totenberg for gracing us with your visit. Your clear, concise words have been a beacon of integrity for many years.

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