Today’s episode of NPR’s All Things Considered discussed the racism scandal surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling that erupted after this TMZ report over the weekend. Repeatedly — seemingly at every turn — All Things Considered hosts and contributors stumbled over themselves in an attempt to appear careful and balanced, and they sound condescending at best and woefully unable to pinpoint blatant racism at worst. Here are a few examples (emphases mine):
“The NBA is investigating a recording in which the owner of the L.A. Clippers allegedly makes several racist remarks.” “We hear Donald Sterling allegedly saying, ‘I don’t hate anybody. I love the black people. I love everybody.’ … He’s apparently saying to his girlfriend, allegedly, ‘Do whatever you want in private, just don’t put [pictures of her spending time with people of other skin color] on your Instagram.'”
Yes, an NBA investigation into the recording is ongoing to determine whether it is indeed Sterling’s voice. And, as the NPR report says, California law makes it a dicey issue if Sterling did not know he was being recorded, so it may all be inadmissible in court, if this were to become a legal matter. NPR wants to cover itself in the astronomically unlikely case the recorded man’s voice is not Donald Sterling’s. But the way they write their copy is lazy, amateurish, and so fearful of potential lawsuits that they look foolish.
Being careful in methodology, sourcing, and especially word choice are key tenets of journalism, but you don’t have to be stupid about it. The above quotes, and others in the media — All Things Considered is far from the only culprit here — place the onus of their carefulness on whether these comments were racist, not whether it’s in doubt as to who said them.
And this is a problem.
Of course these comments are racism in its most naked form. The man saying them is a racist, willfully trying to insulate himself from people with different skin color entirely because of that difference and exclude them from doing something they have every right to do. Whether it’s Sterling saying these things, we can debate all day until there is confirmation by vocal experts and software — but really, it’s him, and the media is being overly cautious in reporting it — but to play this “maybe, maybe not” game with confirming the comments’ potential immorality is asinine.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are simple ways for the people at All Things Considered to properly report on this story, and it only involves moving a couple words around and adding a parenthetical phrase or two. They need to say, “The NBA is investigating a recording, allegedly of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist remarks,” or, “the man in the recording tells the woman, ‘Do whatever you want in private, just don’t put it on your Instagram,'” and so on. The moral quality of the comments is not what is in question, but the man saying them is. It’s such a simple distinction, but it’s immensely important for anyone who cares about calling out the wrongs of society, which is is ostensibly every journalist’s job. It takes an extra second or two to write these things in a way that both covers them legally and still makes light of how wrong it is to subjugate other human beings in speech or action. It’s dismaying to see the media perpetually get this wrong when it’s so easy to fix it.