Tanzina Vega: Tributes to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have flooded the news and social media since she died last Friday. One of the most powerful of these tributes came from NPR's Nina Totenberg, who covered Justice Ginsburg and the US Supreme court for decades. Totenberg's obit didn't just reflect on the life and legacy of Justice Ginsburg, but also on her personal relationship with the cultural and political icon. The two had been close friends for 50 years, with the late Justice even presiding over Totenberg's second wedding.
Nina Totenberg: I sometimes was asked how I could remain such good friends with RBG at the same time that I covered her as a reporter. The answer was really pretty simple. If you're lucky enough to be friends with someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, starting when both of you were young, you understand that each of you has a job and it has to be done professionally and without favor.
Tanzina: As a journalist and close friend, can you really cover a public figure like a Supreme Court Justice without favor? Is there an inherent conflict of interest in that relationship and others that come up in journalism? For that and more, we're now going to talk to Washington Post media reporter, Paul Farhi about all of this. Paul, welcome back to the show.
Paul Farhi: Hi, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Well, Nina says it's pretty simple to be able to have a friendship with someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and cover her at the same time. I don't think so. What do you think?
Paul: I don't think so at all. It raises all kinds of questions. When you are a young reporter, it is beaten into you that your relationships are very important and your distance from those relationships are important. You have to maintain an arms-length relationship with the people you cover to create objectivity, neutrality, and balance. When you become friends with the people you are covering, it taints that relationship and it raises a question. Once people know that you are having this kind of relationship, are you pulling your punches? Is your reporting in some way affected by the relationship? We wouldn't accept a reporter covering their spouse or their business partner or their romantic interest. We don't really accept it in terms of reporters covering their friends.
Tanzina: Has Totenberg or NPR responded to any of the criticism of her friendship with Justice Ginsburg?
Paul: Yes. Nina Totenberg was upfront about it. I contacted her the other day and almost instantly, she said, "Give me a call." We spoke for about 45 minutes about it. She's addressed it before. The clip you played, that was more or less her answer to me, too. NPR's response was a little bit different and funny in a way. They basically said, "They've known each other for a very long time. This is a relationship that goes back to the 1970s. Our handbook of ethics says you can't have a source influence your story," and they left it at that, which frankly doesn't really address the issue.
They have previously police these kinds of relationships. A couple of hosts were taken off being hosts while their spouses were working for the Obama administration. NPR thought that was a conflict, but Nina Totenberg occupies a special place, rarefied place at NPR. She's very popular among listeners. She's a very good reporter and she's been there since 1975 covering the same beat. So, she gets special dispensation for this sort of conflict. Now, the real issue in some ways is maybe you can finesse this by disclosing it, so there's no hidden agendas and nothing held back from listeners.
If Nina Totenberg simply said every time she covered the court, "Friends, I've had a long relationship with RBG," you should know about this as part of her reporting, in some ways that might make it less an issue, but she very, very rarely did that. This issue has come up from time to time, but Nina Totenberg did hundreds and hundreds of stories, has done hundreds and hundreds of stories about the court, and she rarely ever disclosed it on the air.
Tanzina: There's a lot in that answer that I want to unpack here because I feel like there's a difference in terms of fairness, in terms of how some reporters are treated versus others who have these relationships. Granted, they are not all of the reporters that are out there, but there is some sort of a special treatment here being afforded to Totenberg for her, as you mentioned, many, many decades of reporting. I'm wondering a couple of things. First of all, NPR obviously benefits from this relationship in some ways. It's part of, in a larger context, what's called access journalism. News organizations do benefit from these high-level relationships. Isn't that right, Paul?
Paul: Yes, and listeners do, too, I might add. Nina Totenberg in talking with me, said, "My job is to know these people as well as I can and to know everything about them." That's true for any reporter. In knowing them so intimately, it informs her reporting, it allows her to be able to have some insights that a reporter who doesn't have this kind of relationship might not have. There is a benefit to it, but the question is at what price and at what cost to have that benefit.
Tanzina: I also want to point out here that in terms of talking about objectivity, and I think it would be, for example, in the case of Totenberg and Justice Ginsburg, NPR could say, "Well, you can cover the court. You just can't cover Justice Ginsburg specifically." We see a lot of those accommodations or requests, I should say, being made by news organizations, as you mentioned. If I'm a business reporter, for example, I have to disclose to my news organization if I have certain investments in certain companies that would preclude me from covering those companies fairly, for example.
This is a pretty standard request from news outlets. I just want to broaden the lens here because oftentimes when we talk about objectivity, we hear from journalists of color, LGBTQ+ journalists about how they've often been reprimanded because they can't "be objective" covering issues relating to their own communities. It feels like that's a double standard, Paul.
Paul: Well, that's a can of worms.
Tanzina: Just a small one. Ever since I've been a reporter, and it's been a long time, we've tried to diversify our newsrooms that I've worked in. The reason for that is we want multiple perspectives. We want people from different backgrounds to be able to present the world to our readers because they have the experience in what they're reporting on, but that's not exactly the same as, "We want you to favor the group that you may emanate from, the group that you are a part of. We want you to bring insight to your coverage based on your experience, but we don't want you to tilt the coverage to favor that group."
It's a very fine line, I admit, and it's one that could tilt the wrong way. We, as reporters, are obligated to being fair and neutral, and we get into arguments all the time, as do readers with us, about how you define those things, but I don't think background per se is prejudicial. In fact, I think it's beneficial, but we all need to check our prejudices. We all need to check our biases and account for them. As a professional reporter, you're not doing your job unless you do those things constantly.
Tanzina: Paul Farhi is the Washington Post's media reporter. Paul, thanks for joining me.
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