aNewDomain.net — As news hits that the NBA has banned for life Los Angeles Clippers owner Don Sterling and fined him $2.5 million, our Ted Rall weighs in on the controversy. Exclusive to aNewDomain.
“Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life. He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.” Statement issued by the LA Clippers.
LA Clippers team owner Donald Sterling is a litigious guy. But the fact is, Sterling — now banned for life by the NBA — never denied that it’s his voice on the recorded phone call asking that his ex-mistress stop bringing African Americans, including basketball great Magic Johnson, to his games.
Sterling did deny that the words on the tape accurately reflect his views, beliefs and feelings. Not since Donald Rumsfeld has the English language suffered so.
Given Sterling’s history of racially-inflected legal run-ins, including shelling out $2.7 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit that accused him of running African Americans and Latinos out of apartment buildings he owns, it’s also not a big leap to stipulate that the 80-year-old Sterling, long derided as the worst owner in American professional sports, is exactly like what he sounds like on the tape: racist, controlling, hypocritical and dumb.
I’d go on, but my editor has me on a strict adjective quota.
Consider journalism’s Rule of Three — one is an incident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a pattern ensured. This ensured that, following the retrograde slavery-wasn’t-so-bad remarks of the Duck Dynasty guy and self-styled anti-guvmint patriot grazing-fee refusenik Cliven Bundy, the outcry over Sterling’s recorded conversation, the demand that the NBA sanction him and the players’ protests would wash away other headlines for a few days.
Yet there’s a major part of the Sterling story that American journalists aren’t covering. One that’s just as important as the reminder that racism is still thriving in the executive suite — a suite whose profits derive mostly from African American players, and whose boss has a half-black, half-Mexican girlfriend, no less.
What about Sterling’s privacy rights?
They tell us privacy is dead. Online, between the NSA and the public’s failure to take to the streets to bitch about the NSA, privacy is probably finished.
But what about a private phone call?
V. Stiviano, Sterling’s 31-year-old former mistress, appears to have surreptitiously recorded the call, baiting him into making disgusting remarks for the record and releasing it to the media, including the gossip sites TMZ and Deadspin, in retaliation for a $1.8 million lawsuit filed last week by Sterling’s wife. Mrs. Sterling is seeking the return of an apartment, cash and several cars — communal marital property under California law — that Sterling gave Stiviano.
Contextually, this is more gossip than journalism, closer to the ranting Alec Baldwin voicemail to his daughter tacklessly released by ex-wife Kim Basinger than anything like WikiLeaks. We aren’t supposed to know about this.
What’s being ignored amid a firestorm of controversy so out of control that even the President of the United States felt compelled to weigh in on this matter so beneath the dignity of his office is this: Sterling’s privacy rights have been violated, both legally and morally.
Which is not good for him. Much more importantly, it’s terrible for us.
First, the legal issue: California, where this call almost certainly took place, requires the consent of both parties in order to record a phone conversation. Stiviano risks a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. (There doesn’t appear to be a penalty for making the recording public. California’s state assembly should consider one.)
Then there’s the moral question.
I have no beef with TMZ. When reporters find news, it is their duty to report it no matter where it comes from or who it hurts. I’m a purist on this point. I don’t think WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden had any moral duty to protect intelligence secrets, not even the identities of spies, when they released classified U.S. government documents.
My problem is that nobody else seems to have a problem with recording private conversations and releasing them to the media.
As we learned from The People vs. Larry Flynt, society must defend its worst scumbags from having their rights violated, or everyone else risks losing theirs, too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where every stupid thing I blather over the phone is potential fodder for public comment, Twitter wars and cause for dismissal from work.
Until we descend into the Stasi-like “Lives of Others” dystopia into which the NSA seems determined to transform the Land of the Formerly Free, everyone — including racist douchebags like Donald Sterling — ought to enjoy a reasonable presumption of privacy on the telephone.
It is tempting to trumpet Sterling’s downfall minus the privacy concerns. Indeed, the evidence indicates that he’s a terrible person with a long record of nasty behavior governed by evil, incoherent prejudices. Certainly, the universal declamation of racism, even among figures on the extreme fringes of the race-baiting right, like Sean Hannity, reflect how far the U.S. has come.
Publicly, at least, overt racism has finally become socially as well as politically unacceptable.
For most Americans, then, Stiviano’s leaked tape is one of those ends that justifies the means things. A disgusting guy outted by a slightly-less-disgusting woman.
But the fact that he has victimized minorities doesn’t make him less of a victim on the privacy issue. And I’m really not sure the benefit outweighs the cost.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Sterling’s public behavior had always been unimpeachable, that he had never uttered an offensive remark about minorities. That deep down, he had always hated African Americans and Hispanics and who knows who else — but that he’d never confided his hateful thoughts to anyone (at least not to anyone indiscreetly). And further, that there was no evidence that Sterling had ever discriminated against anyone.
These things are, of course, not true. But let’s say they were. There are, I think, many people who harbor racist and other horrible thoughts yet don’t act on them. So assume he was one of those people.
What if this theoretical Sterling had, despite living a non-racist life, somehow had his racist beliefs exposed? Brain scan, perhaps?
Would the U.S. be a better place by revealing these heretofore secret thoughts? Would shaming him on the Internet and on TV accomplish anything, other than make the rest of us feel good about ourselves? No. It would have no meaningful effect.
So what’s my point? Yes, racist thoughts beget racist actions — but that we should only judge people for their actions. Which do include public statements.
Private phone calls are not public statements.
Sterling’s record as a racist was there all along, available to anyone who cared to Google his name. Nothing new has emerged, nothing new is known because of Stiviano’s tape.
If people wanted to protest his racism, they could have, and should have.
Meanwhile, something very precious — the right to talk shit on the phone, even the right of a total jackass to talk shit to his ex-mistress on the phone, with the freedom that only comes with the assumption that only the two people on the call will ever listen to its contents — is in danger.
And that’s scary.
For aNewDomain.net, I’m columnist Ted Rall.
Based in New York, Ted Rall is a nationally-syndicated columnist, editorial cartoonist and war correspondent who specializes in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The author of 17 books, most-recently published The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt, Rall is twice the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Follow him @TedRall, check out his Facebook fan page and definitely follow his Google+ stream here. Ted’s upcoming book After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan is due out in 2014.