Thomas Gallatin / Sep. 25, 2020

Peas in a Pod: Justice Ginsburg and NPR’s Totenberg

The NPR journalist and the late RBG had a decades-long close friendship.

Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it was revealed that NPR reporter Nina Totenberg, who has a long history of covering the Supreme Court, was a close friend of the late justice. In fact, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reported, “[Their] relationship dated back to the 1970s when Ginsburg was a pioneering feminists lawyer. The Ginsburg and Totenberg families shared dinners and celebrations together. Ginsburg even presided over Totenberg’s wedding to her second husband.”

Farhi then asks some good questions: “Can a reporter, committed to neutrality and balance, fairly cover a public figure with whom they have a close friendship? Does such a relationship present a conflict of interest, or the appearance of one, that might lead readers, viewers or listeners to question whether a reporter is slanting his or her presentation to favor a friend?”

Given human nature, the answers should be obvious.

After noting that journalists traditionally avoid such compromising positions entirely or will at least disclose their personal connection so as to alert the public to their potential bias, Farhi writes that NPR and Totenberg “almost never mentioned [her friendship with Ginsburg] in the hundreds of news stories, interviews and features Totenberg has done about the court over the years.” Moreover, Farhi points out that “[Totenberg’s] most detailed mention of [her connection to Ginsburg] was in a warm appreciation of her friend published a day after her death.”

When Totenberg was challenged, her reply only served to further underscore her obtuseness toward the charge of journalistic bias. “You can have an arm’s-length relationship [as a reporter] and still be a friend,” she asserted. “You can do both.” Can you? From what Totenberg herself describes, her friendship with Ginsburg was a close one, not a mere acquaintanceship.

Flouting the rules of good journalistic practice typifies the elitism seemingly endemic in much of the news media. Not only are many reporters more activist than journalistic, too many of them are sipping chardonnay with the very elites in power they’re supposed to be covering. And this only serves to further validate Americans’ distrust of mainstream media. The question for journalists like Farhi is: Why now — and only after Ginsburg’s death — are you calling out Totenberg?

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