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NPR's Nina Totenberg Recalls Breaking Anita Hill's Story In 1991


The biggest news story from 25 years ago is about to get new life. The HBO movie "Confirmation" premiering Saturday revisits the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Our own Nina Totenberg broke the story of Anita Hill's sexual harassment claims against Thomas - and your first warning here that some of this may not be suitable for all ears. Nina's here to tell us the story of what happened behind the scenes while this controversy was raging. Hi, Nina.


SHAPIRO: Briefly set the scene. What led to the extraordinarily public scandal of these confirmation hearings, these confrontations between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas?

TOTENBERG: Well, she didn't want to disclose what allegedly had happened to her, but she was contacted by Democratic staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And then the committee really didn't want to know, and so there it lay until a bunch of things occurred. And I found out about it and went with the story.

SHAPIRO: And so she granted you an interview which aired on NPR, and then she testified publicly. We're going to hear a clip of that testimony which we should warn listeners involves some graphic sexual descriptions.


ANITA HILL: After a brief discussion of work, he would turn the conversation to a discussion of sexual matters. His conversations were very vivid. He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.

SHAPIRO: So Nina, this went on for a while, and during that period, what happened to you as a reporter who broke this story?

TOTENBERG: Well, you would think it would be great. And I suppose in hindsight, it did do a fair amount for my career, but at the time, it was just awful. Clarence Thomas was pilloried. Anita Hill was pilloried, and I was pilloried because I was the messenger.

SHAPIRO: What did that mean in specific terms?

TOTENBERG: I mean, Republican senators took to the floor and just trashed me, and sympathetic reporters to them trashed me. And every little iota of my life got exposed to the public, and I wasn't, after all, running or applying for anything. And in the end, I was subpoenaed to testify by a special prosecutor named by the Senate, and I refused to testify. And there was the possibility of my going to jail until finally, in a moment of unusual wisdom, the Senate decided not to cite me for contempt.

SHAPIRO: When I was your intern 15 years ago, you told me a story about literally burning your telephone records in the fireplace.

TOTENBERG: It wasn't my telephone records. I burned my notes. The night that it was clear to me that it was going to be a legal preceding, I burned my notes.

SHAPIRO: You said you would come into work every morning. Your voicemail box would be full, totally full.

TOTENBERG: Yeah. And I think my voicemail box at that time - the number 36 sticks in my brain, that it would hold 36 voicemails. So when I would leave, there would be none, and when I would come in in the morning, it would be full, completely full people writing the kinds of things that they write in comments now that I never read because they're just - would upset me too much.

SHAPIRO: And as you say, Anita Hill was also viciously personally attacked. Clarence Thomas was viciously personally attacked. But I suppose the upshot of all this is how much the event changed the workplace. All over the United States today there are policies in place that exist in large part just because of this event.

TOTENBERG: Totally because of this. The number of sexual harassment claims doubled over the next year or so. Up until this point, most professional women in varying degrees had been sexually harassed. Some had been actually attacked, some simply profoundly embarrassed, whatever. But women didn't talk about this for a reason that may seem odd to the millenial generation. We were embarrassed to talk about it.

So these hearings were, in some ways, a revelation to women across the country that they weren't the only ones. And it may have been the reason that they had to have the hearing because they couldn't sweep it under the rug. And the telephones were exploding, and the fax machines on Capitol Hill were vaporizing because in those days we didn't have email like we have today.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: (Laughter) And it wasn't as easy to ignore. And they had have a second round of hearings to investigate this. Unfortunately they did it about four days, and so there was no hope of ever finding out what the truth was.

SHAPIRO: When you started covering Washington in the 1970s, you were one of the very few women doing hard news reporting at the Supreme Court, the Capitol Hill, the White House. Do you think in some way that helped you get this story because of experiences and perspective you had that others might not have?

TOTENBERG: Well, I'm not sure of that, actually. I actually don't think that's true. I just think I saw a story. And when I started down this road, I wasn't really sure what it was all about. I just - I saw that something odd was going on among the committee members at the time that they voted on the Thomas nomination in committee. And I just started shaking the trees, and suddenly big, fat fruit started falling out of it.


SHAPIRO: In the form of an affidavit.

TOTENBERG: Yes - well, no. The affidavit I had to really work very hard to get. When I first called Anita Hill, she wouldn't talk to me unless I had the affidavit. I think she thought I wouldn't get the affidavit, but of course, as we all know, I'm a very stubborn person, so I got the affidavit.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) As some of us know better than others. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg (laughter), thanks, as always.

TOTENBERG: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: And in the NPR Politics Podcast, Nina gives her take on the HBO movie "Confirmation" plus many more details from 1991. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.