Ever the straight-talking reporter — with a touch of elegance, wearing a simple black dress and carrying a glimmering red clutch — National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg appeared before a capacity crowd in Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, on Feb. 3, talking about her family, the thousands of stories she wrote about the Supreme Court and about the importance of friendships.
In an event titled “A Conversation with Nina Totenberg,” one of several appearances held throughout the nation in conjunction with the release of her new memoir, the award-winning legal affairs reporter encouraged women, especially, to form female friendships in their work lives.
She said she was fortunate to get a job at what was then a much smaller NPR with a couple of shows a day early in her career. At NPR then, most reporters were women earning very low salaries, she said. While acknowledging that newsrooms and all workplaces had changed, she credited early friendships with the likes of fellow journalists such as Linda Wertheimer, Susan Stamberg and the late Cokie Roberts with her ability to soldier on in what was mostly a man’s world. She said those friendships with her “work sisters” were lifelong.
“Most jobs are not solo acts, and you do them better with other people.”
She said she had found a regular memoir “just too daunting.” The leadership at Simon & Schuster, her publisher, had suggested she write instead a book about friendships. Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir on the Power of Friendships was born. The book was offered free to ticket holders at the event, but demand exceeded supply. Members of the audience who did not receive a book were invited to put their name on a list to receive a book later.
The talk was moderated by Pamela Wu, director of communications and media relations at UC Davis Health and former broadcast journalist in Sacramento.
Totenberg told the audience that she was in her 20s, working at the National Observer, when she first met Bader Ginsburg, who was teaching law at the time. The reporter was dealing with her first Supreme Court brief, one that centered on the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, and had called on the professor — the brief’s author — to help her understand it.
Totenberg quipped that the conversation became an hourlong lecture — followed later by a shopping trip, the first of many, and dinners and other social activities in a lifelong friendship.
They were friends before Bill Clinton appointed Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993 and kept their friendship afterward, keeping it separate from their personal lives. “It’s a clear boundary,” Totenberg said, between justices and reporters who cover them. She acknowledged that her access, and her friendships with many justices over the years, gave her a front-row seat to a “tiny village” most people never get to glimpse. “These are very interesting people. ... What I do is gain insight into what makes them tick.”
Best of a generation
Kevin Johnson, dean of UC Davis School of Law, among those in the audience, said he thought Totenberg contributed to people’s perspective and understanding.
“The UC Davis community was privileged to hear the insights from the Supreme Court reporter of her generation, Nina Totenberg," Johnson said. "Her insights and remembrances reminded law students, attorneys and all in attendance of the basic humanity of the justices on the highest court of the land and helped us all better understand the branch of the federal government that is most mysterious and largely invisible to many Americans.”
Prompted by a question from Wu, Totenburg addressed the leak of the Dobbs decision last year before the Supreme Court had ruled on the case that would change abortion law. The leak produced documents that revealed how justices would probably decide the controversial case.
“That was the only major scoop on my beat that I was really glad I didn’t have,” she said of the leak, opining that it did great damage to the court. Because the leak occurred early in the session before much discussion and debate normally would have occurred, it “did freeze the debate” and affected what might have been a different opinion in the end.
She said the subsequent internal investigation into the leak “was a fool’s errand to begin with,” destined to lack any outcome.