Controversy swirling around L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments has raised a larger question about the media’s role in race relations.
On the Diane Rehm Show Wednesday morning, a day after Sterling was banned from the National Basketball Association for life because of his comments, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Craig Steven Wilder drew a correlation between Sterling and Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher at odds with the federal government over grazing rights and who recently wondered aloud if black people weren’t “better off picking cotton” as slaves. “We’re allowing a conversation about race to obscure some very real and important conversations we need to be having in American society,” Wilder said. “It’s also been mainstreamed by a media presentation that has created Cliven Bundy as a sort of Robin Hood, which he’s not.”
Robert Drechsel, director for the Center for Journalism Ethics, also said that the media’s response played a role in the Sterling case.
“In this case, everybody jumped on the bandwagon and it really magnified the issue,” Drechsel said. “What this did was really bring to broader public attention this particular person had manifested in a variety of contexts.”
The story began after website TMZ posted audio of Sterling’s comments, allegedly recorded by a woman TMZ identified as the married Sterling's “girlfriend.” The NBA in turn conducted an investigation into the authenticity of the recording, which it found legitimate before handing down the lifetime ban on Tuesday. The mainstream media descended on the subject, which has been headline news for days. But when a story is broken by an outlet that doesn't necessarily check an item's authenticity beforehand and goes live with unverified allegations, where does that leave traditional media outlets? Dreschsel says a culture of immediacy often forces the media to put “get it first” before “get it right.”
“I don’t think you can say that covering something simply because others are already makes it ethical,” Drechsel said. “In an environment where we have TMZ, it really changes the game and puts enormous pressure on the press.”
But TMZ's choice and the media frenzy that followed may have caused the NBA's decision to ban Sterling for life and fine him $2.5 million. Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on Rehm’s show that the NBA’s decision was more likely a forced reaction to media pressure and the threat of lost revenue rather than an action of conscience.
“It’s about the cash,” Dyson said, referring to the many endorsements the Clippers lost after Sterling’s indiscretions were brought to light. “The reality is, the bottom line wasn’t threatened (before Sterling’s comments were made public).”
And as Wilder and an article on ESPN.com asserted Wednesday morning, all the talk and media spotlight on figures like Sterling and Bundy doesn’t address the bigger issue of racism in America.
“The danger of thinking only about the really quite nasty comments (Sterling made) is that it allows us to think that punishing Don Sterling actually solves the problem,” Wilder said on Rehm’s show. “It doesn’t.”
The issue has also given rise to the state of racism in the U.S. While sports figures like Bryant Gumble and athletes like Kareem Abdul Jabbar (in a Time magazine editorial) point to Sterling’s long history of racist allegations, they also pointed out something else: Racism is everywhere. In an article for Fox News, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield said the solution lies within each person to eliminate racism closest to them, not just what’s seen on the TV or computer screen.
“While we are often good at identifying the racists who don’t look like us, we are less good — dare I say less willing — to identifying the racists who dwell most closely to us, and look most like we do,” Hirschfield wrote. “That’s the real lesson that we can all learn from Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy — each admired men within their respected worlds, and each guilty of hate, even if they themselves don’t realize it.”