There was no avoiding the news this week: Long-tenured Clippers owner and generally scummy character Donald Sterling was caught by the online gossip industry spouting bizarre racial views. A nine-minute audio recording did much to incriminate Sterling, who was heard on the tape telling his extramarital girlfriend not to bring black people to his games. In response to public outcry, newly minted NBA commissioner Adam Silver served Sterling with a Pete Rose-like lifetime ban. As an L.A. sports fan, I have to say I am happy to see Sterling go, and not just in light of recent happenings. He was notorious in Los Angeles for running his franchise into irrelevance, for concerning himself only with profits and for disrespecting his fans.
The whole spectacle produced at least one major winner: UCSB alum Harvey Levin, whose celebrity gossip website, TMZ.com, was responsible for the audio leak. From the paparazzo’s perspective, the Sterling tape was a goldmine. Not only was it adulterous and racially-charged, the video was also deeply personal, intimate and reminiscent of the kinds of disagreements many of us have with our significant others (though, of course, skewed by the fundamentally unique perspective of Donald Sterling). It’s exactly the kind of voyeuristic delight sure to generate web traffic, starring a man so universally reviled that no one could sympathize with him, at least not publicly.
But putting the Sterling case aside, it is my hope that many of us will remember our sometimes-longstanding opposition to the celebrity-gossip industry in general. The paparazzo’s work would be obviously criminal absent a widely accepted tradition that public figures somehow agree to lifelong privacy invasion. I’ve never been very convinced of this. For one thing, the paparazzi don’t stop at public figures; the children of public figures are equally fair game. How many times have you seen an “exclusive” photo album of some celebrity’s new baby while checking out at the market? Plus, it’s hard for me to envision anyone, public figure or otherwise, agreeing to some of the treatment routinely given out by the gossip industry.
For instance, in 2009, the pop star Madonna was thrown from her horse when a crew of photographers set off their flashes just in time to spook it. She suffered no permanent damage, but did make a necessary hospital visit. This was lucky — many people have died falling from horses.
More recently, in 2013, TMZ photographers stationed outside a Hollywood nightclub happened to get lucky and witness a murder. Andre Lowe ¾ who, as far as I can tell, was never famous at all ¾ was 19 when he was caught up in the melee of knives and gunfire that ended his life. Needless to say, TMZ posted a video (containing gunshots and a sprawled-out Lowe seconds before he died from his wounds) to their website without the permission of the family. It remained there until an online petition got enough support to coax TMZ to take it down. One can only imagine how much harder the coaxing would have had to have been had the murder involved someone famous.
Look, I know I’m not in the target demographic for celebrity gossip. I think in researching this column I read more tabloid articles than I had in the other 20 years of my life combined. I know there are many who really like to live vicariously through celebrities, the same way some might like sci-fi movies or fantasy novels, but knowing is one thing and understanding is another. Some members of my own family take a lot of joy in reading gossip rags; I can see it happen. I just can’t get outside my own aversion. The whole thing seems preposterous to me ¾ the idea that, for some reason, celebrities don’t deserve privacy. I know they are often paid immense sums of money, but in the end I don’t think privacy is something you can sell. And although I’m happy the world knows the truth about Donald Sterling, aspects of his fall rub me the wrong way. In it, I see flashes of vulgarity that have polluted the entertainment industry for a long time, and probably for a long time to come.
Ben Moss still fears the horse.