Donald Sterling: Not Just an Angel vs. Devil Story

There’s a lot that can be said of the saga involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. While the subject is a target-rich environment for news articles on diversity, sometimes we can get so homed in on the bad guy/good guy aspect that we miss other credible angles.

I attended a reporting on race workshop at the Poynter Institute in 2000 run by Keith Woods, who is now the vice president for diversity in news and operations at National Public Radio. One of the numerous takeaways I remember was that we as reporters often get locked into what he called “angel vs. devil” scenarios when reporting on race.

Reach for Complexity
The person making the perceived racial comment or taking the action is seen as evil, thus everything that person does or has done is viewed through that lens. Likewise, the victim of the perceived racial slight is almost always viewed more sympathetically, and is given a more supportive treatment. Woods tried to get us to step away from that paradigm and look at people involved in racial conflicts in all of their complexities.

That does not mean that Donald Sterling is not worthy of the critical reporting he has received. But reporters should not shy away from the complexities of the story. How does person who through his own words has such a negative view of African-Americans hire such a successful and strong-willed black coach as Doc Rivers? Or, on a more personal level, date a multiracial woman like V. Stiviano?

Likewise, how do we as reporters not critically look at Stiviano’s motives in recording Sterling?

Fresh angles on mental health, ethics

And how does our assessment of Sterling’s comments change if the “mentally incompetent” label sticks?

The initial reporting on the Sterling case brought up his contributions to the local branch of the NAACP and how the group had planned to give him a lifetime achievement award. I had a debate with other journalists on Facebook about this. Some believed the NAACP should never have taken money from Sterling. Others said fundraising is so difficult, especially for African-American and civil rights organizations, that Sterling’s generosity could be considered a “sin tax” and that the NAACP should have gladly accepted it.

That’s just one example of numerous angles that can be mined from the Sterling saga without getting into the “he said, she said” melodrama of the original story. At times we get so caught up in the tawdry details of the “angels vs. devils” that we miss other worthy topics.


Clyde Hughes is a freelance journalist based in Lafayette, Indiana, who wrote many years for the Toledo Blade. He has written for newspapers, magazines and websites around the country and taught courses on covering minorities in the media and media ethics as an adjunct professor.

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