Nina Totenberg: Journalists as Witnesses to History

In the third of a series of blogs offering video snippets from Stephen Hess’ numerous interviews with the prominent journalists featured in Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012. Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent, talks about how the 1960 presidential election drew her into a journalism career because she said, “I realized I could be a witness to history.”

Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters is Hess’ latest book, in which he set out to find the 450 Washington reporters he first surveyed in 1978. He tracks them in France, England, Italy, Australia, and 19 U.S. states in addition to the Washington area, locating 90 percent and interviews 283 of them, producing the first comprehensive study of career patterns in American journalism.


Nina Totenberg’s career has been notable for groundbreaking scoops, one of which led a Supreme Court nominee to withdraw his name in 1986. Yet most reporters agree with Totenberg that to be a journalist is to be a “witness,” watching “interesting stuff going on,” rather than a “participant.” As Robert Rankin, a government and political editor at the McClatchy bureau, put it, “I had a seat at the table where Washington’s business was done for most of the last quarter of a century, and it’s been fascinating.”

Only one journalist in our study decided to, as Totenberg puts it, be a “participant” in elective politics: Kathy Patterson, who came to Washington as a reporter for the Kansas City Star  and was later voted onto the Washington City Council.

The one person who said “I went into journalism to save the world” didn’t stay long. Still, there were well-meant references to journalism as a “calling,” and most claimed a social utility for what they were doing. “It was hard, demanding work, but it was useful work,” thought Dale Nelson of the AP. “When things go right you feel that you are contributing to something that is worth doing,” said NBC’s Bob Abernethy, “and that’s a good feeling.”

Each Tuesday, we will be releasing a new conversation and blog post by Stephen Hess. Last week, Fox’s Brit Hume explained how he became a journalist. Click here for an entire schedule and to hear more about the project.