Totenberg: Ted Olson, A Lawyer On CNN Case, Once Saved Me From Being Shut Down NPR's Nina Totenberg was frozen out at the Justice Department in the early 1980s. Ted Olson, among those defending Jim Acosta over his revoked press pass, got Totenberg back in the loop.
NPR logo How A Lawyer In The CNN Case Saved Me From Being Shut Down On My Beat

How A Lawyer In The CNN Case Saved Me From Being Shut Down On My Beat

Ted Olson, one of the lawyers representing CNN in a case against the Trump administration, helped NPR's Nina Totenberg when she was frozen out of the Justice Department in the early 1980s. J. Scott Applewhite/AP hide caption

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Ted Olson, one of the lawyers representing CNN in a case against the Trump administration, helped NPR's Nina Totenberg when she was frozen out of the Justice Department in the early 1980s.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A feeling of déjà vu washed over me as I sat in the courtroom for Jim Acosta's legal fight over his White House press pass this week. I, too, once got shut down on my beat, though not by a president. I was saved not by a lawsuit but by a Republican lawyer — indeed, one of the lawyers now representing CNN in the Acosta case.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back in the early 1980s, I was a young and even more uppity reporter than I am now. And I was covering the Justice Department, in addition to the Supreme Court, for an also quite young NPR.

At some point during the early years of the Reagan administration, the head of press relations for the Justice Department, whose name I have conveniently forgotten, grew unhappy with my work and decided a punishment was in order.

Now remember, this was before email, cellphones, texts or fax machines. So whenever the Justice Department wanted to alert reporters about an impending announcement, an indictment, a briefing or a press conference, there would be a call-out — by phone — to beat reporters.

Left in the dirt

Suddenly, my phone stopped ringing. I steamed and stewed and protested to the powers that be. Ultimately, colleagues (also competitors) agreed to clue me in when they got calls. It was embarrassing, humiliating, hard to explain to my bosses, and — worst of all — as a journalist, I was being left in the dirt.

Finally, I called up Ted Olson, then in his 30s, who was assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, and asked him to lunch. We had not met until then, and at some point during a very entertaining lunch, I told him I was being frozen out by the department's press office, and why.

His reaction: "Well, that's just wrong," and he blithely promised that he would "fix it."

Unfreezing me

Amazingly, I later learned, he went back to the Justice Department, checked to make sure I was in fact being frozen out, and then went to the attorney general, William French Smith, who ordered his press guy to unfreeze me. Just like that, the freeze was over.

Olson would go on to a stellar legal career that continues to this day. Perhaps most famously he argued and won the case of Bush v. Gore in the Supreme Court on behalf of presidential candidate George W. Bush; he would then become the Bush administration's chief legal advocate in the Supreme Court.

The bottom line, though, is that clashes over a free press are nothing new and they don't always end up in court.

Olson is not the lead lawyer in the CNN case. On this one he is playing second fiddle to lawyer Theodore Boutrous Jr. But over the years he has been a presence in many press cases. And at the federal courthouse on Wednesday, Olson and I couldn't help but chuckle about that lunch long ago.