Editor’s note: This is an opinion article from William A. Babcock, editor of Gateway Journalism Review.
For anyone spending the past few days in a cave, the person in the eye of the latest media storm is Donald Sterling, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
Sterling ignited the race card, and the media suddenly have diverted their eyes from the Ukraine, a missing airplane and a South Korean ferry. Race is America’s trump card. It’s the nation’s third rail: touch it and you die.
Sterling’s racist comments recently were recorded by his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, and released by TMZ on Saturday. Three days later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver called for NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, banned him for life from any association with the league and fined him $2.5 million.
Now Sterling’s remarks were inappropriate, racist, odious, vulgar and hurtful. But they were made in the privacy of his own home, and recorded without his knowledge or consent. So go ahead and throw the first stone. Everyone who has never said something stupid and hurtful in the privacy of his or her own home – everyone who would be comfortable having any and all of his or her utterances broadcast publically in this new-tech world – please stand up.
A truly strange assortment of voices already has been heard on this subject – many speaking out against sanctions against Sterling – and more likely will hit blogs, tweets, newspapers and radio waves in coming days. Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, Libertarians, members of the American Civil Liberties Union from the Skokie-march days and a number of First Amendment free-speech advocates all have offered their commentaries. What strange bedfellows they are.
The public and members of the media should speak out against, and chastise, a public figure’s insensitive, unethical remarks, even though such remarks were made in private. But do remarks uttered in private justify Silver leveling such a punishment?
As former African-American NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote earlier this week: “Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizens’ privacy in such an un-American way?”
Jeff Jacoby, writing recently in the Boston Globe, pointed out it’s illegal in California to secretly record a private conversation. In a free society, he wrote, “private lives and private thoughts aren’t supposed to be everyone’s business.” But, as Jacoby adds, such intrusions, made possible by modern technology, are eroding this value, and the presumption that what people say in their personal lives will stay personal, is all but gone.
In the 1965 U.S. Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, William O. Douglas wrote about a “penumbra” right of privacy. Justices Hugo Black and Potter Stewart countered that the Constitution contains no such right.
Today, some notable First Amendment activists who usually side with Douglas on issues of privacy are comfortable supporting the commissioner’s punitive sanctions against Sterling, even though such sanctions would not have been leveled had his privacy not been violated.
Privacy, new technology and the U.S. race card; what a toxic brew. It’s regrettable Silver has drunk so deeply from this draught.
Two wrongs were made: Sterling said something ugly, and these comments were broadcast by the media. But two wrongs don’t mean professional basketball’s commissioner was right in leveling sanctions against the Clippers’ owner. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
When the ends are seen to justify the means, media ethics and media law both suffer. And race once again is able to rear its ugly head.