Paul Farhi, a media critic for the Washington Post, says that Justice Ginsburg’s close friendship with NPR’s long time Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg raises questions of journalism ethics. Farhi notes that Ginsburg and Totenberg became friends in the 1970s. They shared dinners and celebrations, and Ginsburg presided over Totenberg’s wedding to her second husband.
The question is whether Totenberg therefore was in a position fairly to cover Ginsburg’s work on the Supreme Court. Another question is whether, at a minimum, Totenberg should have disclosed the relationship to her audience.
Farhi quotes two experts in journalism who find Totenberg’s ethics wanting. One says she should have recused herself from covering Ginsburg or the Supreme Court. The other, Leonard Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, says Totenberg arguably should not have been on the Supreme Court beat and “at the very least [her relationship with Ginsburg] should [have been] disclosed.”
I have another question. Why is the Washington Post only now telling its readers about Totenberg’s relationship with Ginsburg? If the story is of interest now, surely it was of greater interest while Totenberg was reporting on Ginsburg’s work. How convenient that the Post waited until Ginsburg’s death to raise the matter.
Conservatives have been complaining for decades about Totenberg’s chronically biased reporting on the Supreme Court. That’s a point Farhi might have included in his story.
Finally, it might have been worth noting that Totenberg’s friendships with Supreme Court Justices were not confined to Ginsburg. Long before Ginsburg joined the Court, Totenberg was a friend of Justice Potter Stewart, the man who knew pornography when he saw it.
The two might have been more than just friends. In the 1970s, persistent rumor had it that Totenberg was sleeping with Stewart. Totenberg herself told fellow reporter Rita Braver, “Everyone always says I got stories because I slept with a Supreme Court justice.” Braver says she didn’t have the nerve to ask Totenberg if she actually did sleep with Stewart. Totenberg has denied to others that she did.
Rumor aside, the key points are (1) that Totenberg has had friendships with Supreme Court Justices she did not disclose and (2) that the mainstream media did not call her on this until very late in the day.