Totenberg tests tenet of journalism with source friendships
NEW YORK (AP) — In the last months of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life, one of the few people who knew how seriously ill the Supreme Court justice had become was her friend, National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg.
She kept that news largely to herself.
The legendary Supreme Court reporter, with a new memoir “Dinners with Ruth” that celebrates that relationship, has thrust herself into a debate over a basic tenet of journalism and recalled the long history of how Washington leaders and their chroniclers co-exist.
In short, journalists need to be friendly with sources to get information. But if friendly turns to friendship, are those who depend on a news organization no longer being served?
Totenberg’s revelations of weekly dinners with Ginsburg and how she worried about her health before the justice died on Sept. 18, 2020, led Politico’s Michael Schaffer to wonder what may have happened if the reporter had sounded a public alarm. He suggested public pressure may have prevented the Senate from quickly approving Ginsburg’s successor, Amy Coney Barrett.
“What if she’d been a more single-minded journalist and a lousier friend?” he asked.
While his theory about the Senate may be a stretch, Schaffer noted that Totenberg’s relationships are the sort of thing that angers Americans who believe Washington is a city of insiders looking out for one another.
The relationship, and NPR’s acceptance, troubles NPR’s public editor, Kelly McBride. She wrote critically about it after Ginsburg’s death. McBride’s predecessor, Elizabeth Jensen, addressed the topic in 2016.
“I worry about how this will reinforce for many people that most journalists’ loyalties are not with the public,” McBride said in an interview. “I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe that’s true for Nina. But the perception is very important.”
The ethical discussion may seem quaint when conservative media personalities openly offered advice and texted concerns about the Jan. 6 insurrection to former President Donald Trump and his aides. But it’s different for news organizations that take pride in fairness and impartiality.
Totenberg has covered the court for NPR since 1975 and her list of scoops is long, including the story of Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment that nearly derailed the appointment of Clarence Thomas.
She told The Associated Press that she repeatedly reminded NPR audiences that she and Ginsburg had been longtime friends, and talks about it in detail in her book.
“I have covered the court in one way or another for most of my professional life and have been lucky enough to know and count as friends many judges and justices — both conservative and liberal,” Totenberg said. “From the day I became a reporter, I understood that getting to know people is an essential part of the job, and I stand on my decades of legal coverage as proof of my fairness and the quality of my work.”
Her book details several of those relationships. She “loved” Justice Antonin Scalia. She visited retired Justice William Brennan in a nursing home in his final days, singing Irish songs to him.
Ginsburg was special, though. Totenberg met her professionally before the jobs that defined them, and their friendship deepened with time. The justice presided over Totenberg’s marriage to her husband, David Reines, a surgeon who later gave Ginsburg confidential medical advice.
Reines kept most of those conversations from his wife. After Ginsburg was operated on for lung cancer in December 2018, Totenberg covered it like other reporters when the Supreme Court put out a statement. Later that night, Ginsburg called, telling her that she had forbidden Reines from telling her about the diagnosis ahead of time, because “I just didn’t want you to be trapped between your friendship for me and your obligations as a journalist,” according to the book.
Until Ginsburg died less than two years later, Totenberg wrote that she had a choice of lasting consequence.
“I chose friendship,” she wrote. “It was the best choice I ever made.”
There’s a long history of friendships between Washington leaders and journalists. President John F. Kennedy and Benjamin Bradlee, in his days before editing The Washington Post, were tight. Columnist Drew Pearson vacationed with Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, said Don Ritchie, author of “Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps.”
“There’s never been a time when journalism was not deeply personal in Washington,” said Garrett Graff, former editor in chief of the Washingtonian magazine. Leaders and journalists are neighbors, guests at the same dinner parties, soccer moms and dads on the same sidelines, he said.
Watergate began creating distance and now, at a time of polarization when it’s popular for some leaders to regard journalists as enemies, such relationships can seem a product of another era.
NPR believes its listeners have benefited from what Totenberg has learned through her friendships, said Tony Cavin, the organization’s standards and practices editor. Some of that deep knowledge is evident in “Dinners with Ruth.”
McBride received some internal pushback when she wrote two years ago that NPR hadn’t done enough to tell listeners about these relationships, but none from external sources. And she feels the same way now.
“I wish that I had been a little stronger,” she said.
It’s hard to calculate harm in a situation like this — much of it is with appearances — although McBride said she’s never found an example of when Totenberg did a negative story about Ginsburg.
It’s also difficult to imagine a news organization today accepting a close relationship between a reporter who covers Congress and, for example, Nancy Pelosi.
“I don’t know that there’s much to be done about it other than disclosing and maybe saying that it’s a unique situation, which NPR is not saying,” McBride said. “In fact, they are saying it’s the opposite.”
Cavin said NPR has an editorial process in place to ensure fairness, and that Totenberg isn’t given any kind of preferential treatment. The network occasionally makes disclosures to listeners, for example, to let listeners know of the independence granted to media correspondent David Folkenflik when he reports on NPR.
NPR also approved Totenberg writing her book.
Cavin also noted the extra importance of source-building in covering the Supreme Court, historically a more secretive institution and more difficult to penetrate than political institutions like Congress.
“I would be surprised if you hadn’t developed friendships with your sources,” Cavin said. “You wouldn’t be a good reporter if you hadn’t developed friendships with your sources.”
The question for NPR: have times, and the court, changed enough to make their long-time practices more problematic?