Cancel Culture and the Des Moines Register

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Over the last two weeks, a story has developed in my state that started as a heartwarming story about taking advantage of a situation to raise money for charity, and turned into a debate about cancel culture and journalistic ethics. It started on Saturday, September 14th, when the ESPN show “College Gameday” was in Ames for the in-state rivalry between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Iowa Hawkeyes. A big part of that show is fans, usually students, holding up signs behind the show’s hosts as they discuss the football games of the day. One sign, held up by Carson King, read “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” and listed his Venmo. After receiving a decent amount of money, King announced that he would be donating it to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital. This led to even more money pouring in, and in total over a million dollars was raised for the hospital. This included a $350,000 pledge by Anheuser-Busch.

Then the Des Moines Register got involved. A reporter, Aaron Calvin, was tasked with interviewing King for a profile piece on the man behind the brief viral movement. This was essentially going to be a fluff piece to capitalize on some of the attention, because everyone likes a bit of good news, right? Well, this is where it got interesting. Calvin decided that, as a part of a “routine background check,” he should go through King’s Twitter account. And there Calvin found two tweets, seven years old, that used the n-word. Both tweets were references to Tosh.0, a Comedy Central show centered around viral videos that were popular at the beginning of the decade. The timeline gets fuzzy here, but we know that King apologized publicly, at a press conference hosted by the unaffiliated KCCI, before anything had been run. King also says that Anheuser-Busch cancelled any future plans with him, which included putting his face on Busch Light cans, before he held that press conference. 

Understandably, the state of Iowa was pretty upset with the Register, its largest print publication. Over 150,000 people signed a petition to get the Register to apologize to King on its front page, some 60,000 people unliked the Facebook page (which now sits at around 130,000 likes), and no doubt the customer support lines were ringing constantly with people looking to cancel their subscriptions. The backlash was bipartisan, and Governor Kim Reynolds declared Saturday, September 28th as Carson King Day in Iowa, saying on Facebook, “You can make a mistake in your life, and still go on to do amazing things. Carson King, thank you for reminding us all of that!” The Register put out this message from their editor, defending the decision, but it didn’t change many minds.

Mentioned in that statement are some tweets by the reporter, Aaron Calvin, that angry Iowans had uncovered. The tweets, many of which were obvious jokes and many years old, used offensive language. If the Des Moines Register held this reporter to the same standards he held random people who found 15 minutes of fame and decided to use it to raise $1 million for charity, he likely never would have gotten the job in the first place. Calvin was fired Thursday night, two days into this mess. But he was fired over these old tweets. In that, the Register took the easy way out, and that is a theme in this story.

Thursday evening, the executive editor for the Register, Carol Hunter, published this piece. It’s pretty bad. In it, they cover three topics: why they cover background details for individuals in their stories, how activity on social media is newsworthy, and their screening policy for employees. The first problem is on this background work. Hunter, speaking on behalf of the Register, insists it is necessary to tell a complete story. It is not. The story of Carson King could easily be told without going back seven years on Twitter. In fact, I’m not sure what is added by doing so. Now we know that King was a Tosh fan in high school? 

But here’s the biggest problem of this section: “The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King.” I’m willing to bet this is not the case. Aaron Calvin did not sit on Twitter, scrolling down and reading every message from the past seven years. He used a tool that I’m sure was taught to him at his last job, at Buzzfeed. Go to Twitter, go to the search bar, and type “from:[account] [search term],” and you can see every time that account has used that word (i.e. “from:beinlibertarian tulsi,” and see every tweet we’ve made in reference to Tulsi Gabbard). Calvin used this, and for his search term, he used the n-word. Obviously I don’t have any proof that this is what happened (maybe he has a browser plug-in that does it for him), but given Calvin’s previous employer and the sheer practicality of the situation, I’m confident that it is. So, at the very least, the reporter wanted to disparage King, or was willing to for a viral story.

Now, the next section is more innocuous. It discusses whether the Register should publish the information once it has it, and that’s a fair debate. Withholding information tends to be frowned upon in journalistic ethics, but there’s still the question of whether it’s pertinent to the story. Certainly this section could go without any controversy. Until they wrote this:

“King told us later that Busch Light representatives had called him early Tuesday afternoon to say the company was severing any future relationship. Neither the Register nor King had notified the company about the tweets. Busch Light made its decision independently of any news coverage on the tweets.”

Now, either Busch had done this same check, two days after partnering with King, or a reporter had reached out to tip them off. I don’t know why Busch would check, honestly. If someone came after them for partnering with someone who made two offensive tweets seven years ago, they could simply say “He’s raised over a million dollars for a children’s cancer hospital, now go away.” My bet would be that the reporter asked them for comment, and fearing backlash, they dropped him. We’ve seen it before, especially from tabloids like Buzzfeed. But we’ll get back to that.

In the final section, the Hunter talks about the Register’s policy on social media use and the vetting of hires. She contends that the Register was unaware of the comments made by Calvin, and that they promise to do better in the future. She references “appropriate action,” which is likely in regards to the firing of Aaron Calvin. Here is where they really miss the point. Don’t get me wrong, Calvin deserved to be fired, but it wasn’t because of old tweets, and that’s the problem. Calvin was eaten by the same cancel culture he promoted, but unfortunately it seems the Register is perfectly content continuing that culture. You know what hasn’t been mentioned in this “message?” An apology. Because they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

Cancel culture is the promotion of public backlash based on comments either as a product of decontextualization or ignorant of potential growth. King is not the same man he was 7 years ago. I doubt Calvin is, either. But they’re victims of a system that doesn’t care. Moreover, their crimes are jokes. They were trying to be funny, and in all uses of the n-word by either figure, it was in reference to someone else’s joke. Now, Calvin’s firing isn’t something I’m going to shed any tears over. But Calvin’s actions, and the approval of them by the Register’s editorial board, is truly heartbreaking. Calvin brought tabloid journalism to what was once the most trusted newspaper in the Midwest, and Carol Hunter welcomed it with open arms. Any defense of this muckraking from a journalist’s perspective, or an editor’s perspective, I will not understand.

Fortunately, little actual harm was done. King was not fired from his job, if he has any (thankfully no one has made that public). No pledge money was lost, and if anything, donations have increased in a weird move of spite against the Register (who, of course, has no ill intent towards the Children’s Hospital, but did act with reckless disregard towards it). But far too often, we’ve seen this go another way. Maybe without the great public backlash from the state of Iowa towards its largest newspaper, it would’ve. Hopefully this mess doesn’t prevent anyone else from capitalizing on a brief touch of fame towards something good, but unfortunately, we can’t guarantee that. The Register did make it clear that if you make it public for any reason, good or bad, you can expect them to fully investigate your past, regardless of any relevance to the actual story. So they cannot expect my subscription any time soon.

You can donate to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital by King’s Venmo, Carson-King-25, or here.

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Andrew Bartholomew

Andrew Bartholomew is a politics and election news writer from Iowa City, Iowa. He has previously worked for Young Americans for Liberty and was most recently the political director for a Republican congressional bid.