Sterling case proves no words are private

by | May 4, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Now that Donald Sterling has been banned, fined and condemned – the proper, if ugly, conclusion, in my mind – we should discuss how it happened. Most of us don’t need to worry about angry mistresses, Department of Justice investigations, discrimination lawsuits and a history of bigoted comments.

But all of us need to worry about privacy.

And no matter how incensed Sterling’s comments made you, the way in which we discovered them must be addressed. His damning words – about his female friend associating with black people – were clearly a private conversation, one in which he may have been baited.

Yet 15 minutes of that conversation was released to the world. Rumors abound, but no one has confirmed why it was recorded or how it was distributed.

That didn’t stop it from decimating an 80-year-old man and a 33-year-old business.

TMZ, the gossip website, refuses to say whether it traded money to air the tape (ironically, it sees that as private information), although an executive told the Washington Post it was “one of the biggest stories we’ve ever done.”

One man’s story is another man’s ruin.

We should all care about this – regardless of race, ethnicity, economics or righteous cause. When LeBron James told the news media that it didn’t matter whether Sterling “said that in the confinement of his family or said that by himself,” he was motivated by an (understandable) dislike for the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner.

But would he feel the same way if a tape of him making an ethnic joke in his living room suddenly blew up on the Internet and cost him millions in endorsements? How about a homophobic comment secretly recorded in the players’ “inner sanctum” of the locker room? Does a locker room deserve more privacy than a home? Would James shrug and say, “You got me – whether I said it in the confinement of my family or said it by myself”?

Or would he rail against it?

When you can and can’t record …

How about all the pundits – myself included – who came down hard on Sterling for his bigoted views? What if we discovered that a private argument with our spouses in which we sounded cruel or sexist (and who hasn’t at some point?) was suddenly being viewed worldwide, and readers were clamoring for our firing? Would we staunchly defend First Amendment rights or would we wonder whatever happened to private meaning private?

California has a law – as does Michigan – that says it is criminal to record a conversation unless all parties consent to the recording. It’s a law. You can look it up. Yet the same news media that crash down on the slightest infraction by celebrities had no hesitation using something that might have been obtained illegally.

It doesn’t matter that the woman’s lawyer now claims she was taping with Sterling’s consent. This is a lawyer for a woman who uses multiple aliases, takes millions from a married man and is currently walking around L.A. with a visor over her face telling a gossip outlet she will one day be president. Something tells me Sterling’s lawyers will have a different take.

But what’s important is that nobody knew the real legality of this recording before slapping it onto every news outlet across the globe.

What matters, it seems, is that we got it. Let someone else twist over how.

Life in the Internet world ….

Spying has long held a certain allure, like the fantasy of being invisible and hearing what everyone says in private. Which is precisely why our world of cell phones and micro cameras is so dangerous.

There was technically nothing illegal about the press regurgitating the Sterling tapes; there may have been something immoral. But this is the world we live in. Our forefathers made laws about freedom of speech (to protect citizens from government, not to protect gossip channels), but they never displayed equal foresight for privacy. Probably because in their day, hidden microphones were unimaginable. And decorum prevented certain behaviors from ever seeing the public eye.

That was a long time ago.

There need to be new laws that reflect the Internet world. Not to protect Donald Sterling. To protect all of us. Because today, no place is safe, no restaurant, no parking lot, perhaps not even your own bedroom.

The famous people clamoring to buy Sterling’s team might think long and hard if they’ve had moments that, if recorded, would knock them out of the running. And those of us celebrating the downfall of a doddering old bigot as if we somehow fixed the world probably should turn our eyes to a bigger issue and a bigger problem, one that is not going away as fast as Donald Sterling.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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