The day Anita Hill, Nina Totenberg changed the nation

Judge Clarence Thomas prepares for another day of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Saturday, Oct. 12, 1991. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

We may never again hear the kind of testimony at a hearing for a Supreme Court nominee that we heard in the October 1991 hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas.

The occasion of an HBO movie about the hearings — “Confirmation” — prompted the NPR Politics podcast to bring in the woman pretty much responsible for them: NPR’s Nina Totenberg, who broke the story of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment complaint against nominee Thomas.

The story’s been told before, but it’s a great reminder about the value of having journalists assigned to cover things that most media might ignore. And it’s actually quite thrilling to hear younger journalists hear many of the details for the first time.

Totenberg told her podcast panel that she was confused by then Sen. Joe Biden’s admonishment at the start of the hearings that “gossip” shouldn’t play a part in them. At the time, nobody outside the boy’s club of the Senate knew what gossip he was talking about. As it turned out, it wasn’t gossip at all; it was an affidavit from Hill which Biden tried to keep under wraps.

But Totenberg got the affadavit — she still won’t reveal her source and says she never even told her husband — and then Hill consented to an interview.

Not surprisingly, her podcasting interviewers are younger than Totenberg. But surprisingly, one of them had never heard the audio of the hearings at which Hill told stories of Thomas’ alleged harassment.

“I remember sitting there and having to talk about a movie called Long Dong Silver, and the microphone was there and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, God, I hope my mother isn’t watching,'” Totenberg told her colleagues in the podcast.

“If anyone where I work had talked like that,” co-host Sam Sanders said, “it’d be a no-brainer. It’s over. You’re gone.”

“If it’s true,” Totenberg interjected, an awesome reminder of the value of details.

“I was pilloried during this,” she said of the reaction to her doing the job she’s paid to do. “I had one of the great stories of any reporter’s life. I had worked very hard to get it. And the cost was enormous in terms of negative publicity and people trashing me a lot and senators yelling at me. At one point I had a driver at ‘Nightline’ who went around the corner [and] stopped and he said to me … ‘Lady, you better get a gun.'”

“I can’t imagine what it would be like today. All I know is my voicemail was filled every day by the time I got in.”

One politician, appearing on “Nightline” with Totenberg in 1991, accused her of being unethical.

“If you had done your job,” she replied, “I wouldn’t have had to do mine.”

“This became a cultural phenomenon,” she said, noting that Saturday Night Live produced a “hysterial” skit about the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“And guess who played (Sen.) Paul Simon? Al Franken, the senator from Minnesota,” she said.


“It changed the entire realpolitik about sexual harassment in the workplace. The number of cases that were filed at the EEOC almost doubled,” she said. “For the first time there were rules in the workplace.”

Totenberg said while Thomas speaks forcefully in his decisions on affirmative action about the stigma it places on black students in law school, “he doesn’t acknowledge the real benefits of giving somebody a leg up who may not have gone to Exeter or Eaton or Andover and doesn’t have that kind of an education,and, therefore, doesn’t do as well, for example, on college boards.”

The HBO producers wanted Totenberg in their movie. She demurred.

“We don’t do that at NPR. That’s called pretend news,” she told the Hollywood suitor. They used archive audio of her story instead (transcript here).

It was a charming moment on the podcast when Sanders, apparently hearing much of this for the first time, said, “I’m honored to work in the same newsroom as you.”

She noted that many Americans, “including some in this studio”, know very little about the hearings, “but it was a very important moment in our history. And it changed dramatically the way we deal with sexual harassment claims and it did change the way we deal with sexual allegations in public. I’ve been in Washington a long time and there was a time when senators would cheerfully chase interns around a desk.

“There are correspondents here to whom this happened. And nobody ever thought of reporting that,” she said.

The podcast was a wonderful history lesson and a reminder of the value of institutional memory and the journalistic treasure that Nina Totenberg represents, which makes it even more puzzling that NPR’s ombudsman and an NPR executive so publicly distanced the radio network from Totenberg in February because of her friendship with Supreme Court justices.

There is no indication that Clarence Thomas is one of them.

She says she hasn’t talked to Anita Hill since the day she interviewed her and set in motion a change for women in the workplace.

Related: What Anita Hill thinks about ‘Confirmation,’ HBO’s film about SCOTUS scandal (NBC Today)

(h/t: Kari Knudson)