NPR’s Nina Totenberg warns of increased division in country over Supreme Court

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Nina Totenburg, NPR legal affairs correspondent, spoke about her struggle to break into the media and what her life was like after reporting on the sexual harassment allegations made against Justice Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill Oct. 18 at Trinity University. Totenburg described how hectic it was to cover the death of Justice Antonin Scalia while she was on vacation with her husband. “There is no justice over 70 for whom I do not have an obituary in the can,” she said. Austin P. Taylor

Students should learn from their mistakes, she said.

By Giovanni Maccarone

The country is becoming increasingly divided, and society as a whole hasn’t been this tribal since the Civil War, said Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent, Oct. 18 in Trinity University’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

“If everybody watches what they only agree with, reads editorial pages we only agree with, goes on websites they only agree with, de-friend people they disagree with and can’t have a civil conversation, you have a very tribal country. And that’s where we are,” she said to about 600 people.

Totenberg has been covering the Supreme Court for NPR since the early 1970s and has seen how the confirmation process has changed and evolved into something that divides the country.

She believes the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, who was accused of sexual assault by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, has only made the country more divided.

“It gets worse and worse. There’s almost nobody to temper the brew. And the brew has gotten pretty ugly,” Totenberg said.

She pointed out the Supreme Court today is the most conservative it’s been since the 1930s because of President Donald Trump’s two appointed justices.

“I think conservatives have every right to crow over what they’ve done to espouse their views as passionately as they can and win elections on that issue. And liberals thought it would always be fine for them and it’s not,” she said.

“I’ve always thought when Republicans say that if the Democrats win the Senate, they won’t confirm any Supreme Court nominee for two years. I’ve always thought that was crazy. But I’m not sure it’s crazy anymore because the Democrats feel so burned.”

The Supreme Court, in Totenberg’s view, should not be viewed as a political institution. Thinking of it as anything else other than apolitical would be disastrous for the country because the people would have trust in them and their decisions on important issues.

“I understand the passions run very high in confirmation hearings and that a great deal is at stake,” Totenberg said. “But when a nominee frames his defense in partisan terms, it’s a dangerous thing. We have a certain element of trust in their fairness, and if we think they are completely partisan and not fair, then the court loses its authority.”

Before she started covering the Supreme Court, Totenberg attended Boston University in the 1960s but never finished her studies there. Instead of earning a degree, she moved quickly into a job in journalism, writing for the Record America, a newspaper based in Boston.

From there, she said she has experienced challenges that include gender discrimination, something that was prominent in her early years when applying for jobs.

“Gender discrimination was as American as apple pie,” Totenberg said.

She said woman of her generation are less combative about some offenses today because they had to find a way to deal with harassment because they needed their jobs.

“I’m very glad I live in an era when women don’t have to tolerate abuse,” she said as the audience applauded.

Totenberg’s advice for students is to do the best they can whether in a professional career or personal life and to learn from mistakes because “there will be many.”

“I think when you look back on your life, you can have professional accomplishments. Who I am professionally is at least 50 percent of who I am,” Totenberg said. “It’s the things that are really hard in your personal life where there are choices and you should make the right choices — the choices you can live with for the rest of your life.”


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