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Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Des Moines Register And The Journalism Of Personal Destruction

     Carson King, a 24-year-old resident of Altoona, Iowa, a town located in the Des Moines metropolitan area, was a big fan of University of Iowa football. He had attended the university but did not graduate. He and his father worked at the Prairie Meadows Casino not far from his home.

     On Saturday, September 14, 2019, Carson King arrived early for the University of Iowa versus Iowa State University football game. Viewers of ESPN's television program, "College GameDay," saw Mr. King, among a group of fans, holding up a homemade sign that read: "Busch Light supply needs replenished." The tongue-in-cheek request for beer money donations included King's Venmo username. (Venmo is a payment service owned by PayPal. Account holders can transfer funds to others via a mobile phone app.)

     When donations started rolling in, the surprised football fan used the money to buy a case of beer. But as more people and companies sent money, Carson King announced that he was giving the money to the University Of Iowa Family Children's Hospital. When his generosity came to the attention of the Anheuser-Busch Company, the corporation promised to match the hospital donations made through Mr. King. Several other companies, seeing a good public relations opportunity, followed suit.

     By mid-September, 2019, Carson King had raised more than a million dollars for the children's hospital. The Anheuser-Busch Company called King an "Iowa Legend" and promised him a one-year supply of beer in cans bearing his name and likeness.

     Suddenly enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame, Carson King traveled to New York City where he appeared on television shows broadcast on CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox News.

     Aaron Calvin, a 24-year-old reporter with the Des Moines Register, while putting together a profile piece about the local media sensation, came across tweets King had posted in 2012 when he was sixteen. The tweets, written for his friends, made fun of black women. They were no doubt racist in nature.

     When interviewing Carson King for the article on September 24, 2019, the reporter showed him the 8-year-old racist tweets. When King admitted they were his, Aaron Calvin informed him they would be included in the Des Moines Register article scheduled to be published online that evening.

     Carson King, confronted with the fact his embarrassing tweets were being made public by the Des Moines Register, attempted to get ahead of the story by calling a press conference at which time he said, "Obviously I've made mistakes in my past, everyone has. And I really hope people see at this point in my life, I'm grown, I'm caring, I'm generous. I hope that is what people focus on."

     On September 25, a spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch, without mentioning Carson King's tweets, announced that the company would not produce the beer cans bearing his name and face. While the corporation would honor its promise to match the money King had already raised for the children's hospital, it had cut ties with him.

     After the Register published the King profile and the offensive tweets, it soon became apparent that the pubic did not take kindly to the paper's decision to publish this embarrassing and humiliating information. There were calls for Carol Hunter, the paper's executive editor, to publicly apologize to Carson King.

     In response to the negative backlash, Carol Hunter published an op-ed defending her decision to include Carson King's tweets in the profile. She wrote: "Our initial stories [about Carson King] drew so much interest that we decided to write a profile of King, to help readers understand the young man behind the homemade sign and the outpouring of donations to the children's hospital. The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King. In doing background for such a story, reporters talk to family, friends, colleagues, and professors. We check out court and arrest records as well as other pertinent [italics mine] records, including social media activity. The process helps us to understand the whole person. As journalists, we have the obligation to look into matters completely, to aid the public in understanding the people we write about and in some cases to whom money is donated."

     Carol Hunter's op-ed brings to mind Janet Malcolm's famous quote about the dirty business of journalism: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

     In the executive editor's op-ed, she claimed that the Register's hit-piece on Carson King had nothing to do with the beer company's pullout.

     Hunter's op-ed did not produce the result the editor had hoped for. In fact, it made matters worse for her and the paper because the public saw it for what it was.

     If matters weren't bad enough for the editor and the Des Moines Register, it got even worse. On September 26, 2019, the paper reported that Aaron Calvin, the author of the Carson King profile, had posted his own racist tweets. As a result, the paper fired Mr. Calvin.

     The embattled executive editor, in explaining Calvin's dismissal, wrote that the newspaper's employees "must review and agree to a company-wide social media policy that includes a statement that employees do not post comments that make discriminatory remarks, harassment, threats of violence, or similar content. We took the action because there is nothing more important in journalism than having readers' trust."

     Aaron Calvin, the now ex-reporter who, by exposing Carson King, had opened himself up to scrutiny, said, "I have deleted previous tweets that have been inappropriate or insensitive. I apologize for not holding myself to the same standards the Register holds others."

     The day after Calvin made that statement, BuzzFeed.News came out with a story in which Aaron Calvin took back his apology. He said he had been directed by the Register to apologize, and did so in hopes of saving his job. He now felt abandoned and betrayed by his former employer. "I never was trying to hold Carson to any kind of 'high standard' or any kind of standard at all," he said. "I was trying to do my job as a reporter and I think I did so to the best of my ability."

     In the BuzzFeed piece, Aaron Calvin accused "right wing ideologues" of discovering and publishing his offensive tweets, some of them going back to 2010. "This event," he said, "has set my entire life on fire." 

     Mr. Calvin was right about one thing; there were no so-called "high standards" at play here. If the Des Moines Register had high standards, Carson King's high school tweets would not have been included in his profile.  Mr. King was not a celebrity, or someone running for political office. He was a regular guy trying to do something good for his community. That is more than what can be said about Carol Hunter and the Des Moines Register.

     Fortunately for Carson King, even in the era of intense political correctness, public opinion landed in his favor. Carol Hunter, feeling the public's wrath over the paper's gratuitous cruelty, in a note to the paper's readers, wrote: "We hear you. You're angry, you're disappointed, and you want us to understand that."

     It's probably too optimistic to hope that the journalistic malpractice by the Des Moines Register will at least embolden more people to stand up to hack journalists and the self-righteous Twitter mobs who have been sucking the life out of free speech, and human decency.

      Following the Des Moines Register article, Carson King raised another million dollars for the children's hospital.

1 comment:

  1. Kudos to Carol Hunter and the Des Moines Register. People are complex. There is good and bad in everyone. We don’t need newspapers to pretend the world is made up of white knights and cartoon villains. To treat their readership like children watching Saturday morning cartoons would have been insulting.