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Totenberg On Helms Comment: 'It Was A Stupid Remark'

Oct 26, 2010

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Some conservative commentators are ripping into NPR for hypocrisy in the termination of former news analyst Juan Williams — specifically pointing to 15-year-old remarks by legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg in which she appeared to wish harm to befall the late Senator Jesse Helms.  

When I spoke with her earlier today, Totenberg called her comments "dumb" and read from letters she had sent over the years saying so in reply to complaints about those remarks.   

"It taught me a lesson about being careful," Totenberg said. "I haven't said anything that stupid on the air in 15 years."

In 1995, on the syndicated political television program Inside Washington, guests including Totenberg turned to a proposal by the North Carolina senator that Congress reduce spending on AIDS research. Totenberg said, "I think he ought to be worried about the — about what's going on in the good Lord's mind, because if there's retributive justice, he'll get AIDS from a transfusion or one of his grandchildren will get it." (Video clip here.)

Today, Totenberg said she regrets those words, but that the context is worth noting. In arguing against funding for AIDS, Helms had said, "We've got to have common sense about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts." He was talking about sex between gay men.

At the time, others on the show also reacted strongly against Helms.

— The conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said Helms' remarks were "bigoted and cruel."

— The late columnist Carl Rowan, a liberal, said that Helms "doesn't understand that this is a particularly fearsome disease because people worry about getting it by going to the dentist, or getting a transfusion, or the heterosexual sex act, and one of the reasons the money is being spent is in the hope that AIDS will never approach the kinds of numbers we've got with cancer and heart disease."

— The late Tony Snow, a conservative columnist who went on to be President George W. Bush's chief spokesman, said that "the other thing it's done, ironically, is expose Jesse Helms to the charge of hypocrisy. After all, here's a tobacco state senator and I've never heard him in the well of the Senate getting up and saying, by God, it's time for us to cut off funding for cancer research because these smokers brought it on themselves."

Totenberg now says she was attempting to underscore the point that Helms' objection to federal funding for AIDS testing could lead the disease to spread widely among heterosexuals and babies born to women who had HIV. But Totenberg concedes her comments represented a harsh and overly personalized way to make her point.

Williams has said repeatedly on Fox News that he has nothing to apologize for. NPR executives judged that his recent remarks on the The O'Reilly Factor appeared to give credence to the profiling of airline passengers who dress in "Muslim garb." But NPR officials say they terminated Williams for making a series of comments beyond the appropriate range of a news analyst — and for ignoring previous warnings that he had repeatedly violated the network's standards. 

Totenberg's 1995 comments about Helms have been highlighted by Fox News hosts and commentators, as well as conservatives such as Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard, who also questioned other assessments she has made on political matters.

Jesse Watters, a producer for The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, and a Fox camera crew stopped NPR's CEO Vivan Schiller on a Washington street with a camera crew to ask about the Williams firing. Watters also referred to Totenberg's comments on Helms. 

Totenberg says she tries to be circumspect about things that are likely to come before the Supreme Court — but feels she has more leeway on matters that are not directly on her beat.

As for the Helms comment, Totenberg says, "It was a stupid remark. I'll pay for it for the rest of my life."

(David Folkenflik is a media correspondent for NPR News.)

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