The Des Moines Register came under heavy fire late Tuesday after the paper ran a story smearing 24-year-old college student Carson King, who just donated more than $1 million to a children’s hospital, for racially-charged social media posts he made when he was 16.
It all started when King held up a sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” asking for Venmo donations to fund for his “Busch Light Supply.” Thousands of people responded to the joking request. After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, King pledged to donate the money to a local children’s hospital rather than use it to buy beer, prompting Anhueser-Busch and Venmo to say they’d match the donations. Altogether, King raised more than $1.1 million for the hospital.
But in 2019 America, no good deed goes unpunished. Shortly after King’s story went viral, Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin uncovered two racially insensitive tweets King had posted eight years ago when he was 16 as a sophomore in high school. The paper decided to include them in their story on King’s fundraising campaign, despite them having nothing to do with the money he’d raised for the hospital.
When Calvin raised the issue to King, the paper said the young man expressed remorse over the old tweets and said they made him feel “sick.” Even still, the paper decided to run the detail. Just before the story was published, King held a press conference addressing the old social media posts, ostensibly to get ahead of the bad press he knew was coming his way.
In response to the ridiculous “controversy,” Anheuser-Busch announced they’d ended their intended partnership with King, pulling the associated T-shirts they’d already put up in their online store (the proceeds from which had been promised to the children’s hospital). The company did promise they’d still match King’s donation to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.
Des Moines Register Editor Carol Hunter defended her paper’s decision to post the nearly decade-old tweets, writing in an editor’s note Tuesday night that “The jokes were highly inappropriate and were public posts. Shouldn’t that be acknowledged to all the people who had donated money to King’s cause or were planning to do so?”
“The counter arguments: The tweets were posted seven years ago, when King was 16. And he was remorseful. Should we chalk up the posts to a youthful mistake and omit the information?”
“Eventually, Register editors decided we would include the information, but at the bottom of the story,” she said. “We thought we should be transparent about what we had found, but not highlight it at the top of the story or as a separate story.”
A statement from our editor: pic.twitter.com/ZH9AhcrYbg— Des Moines Register (@DMRegister) September 25, 2019
Observers were also quick to note that while King's press conference addressing the tweets wasn't held until 7 p.m. Tuesday, Anhueser-Busch had already pulled the T-shirts from their store by 5 p.m., suggesting they already knew the firestorm was coming before King ever addressed the issue publicly. The only way the company would have known to distance themselves from King, multiple Twitter users pointed out, is if the paper had reached out to them directly.
But there's another problem with this smear campaign into a college student who was just looking to benefit a local hospital. Aaron Calvin, the reporter who’d dug up King’s old posts, had a few Twitter skeletons in his own closet – ones that internet users were pretty quick to find. The posts included his use of the term “gay” as a slur, as well as several uses of the n-word and some racially charged comments.
Calvin quickly deleted his tweets after Twitter users began flooding the Des Moines Register's comment section with screenshots of the posts.
“Hey just wanted to say that I have deleted previous tweets that have been inappropriate or insensitive,” Calvin wrote on Twitter just before locking his account down. “I apologize for not holding myself to the same high standards as the Register holds others.”
The Des Moines Register eventually posted the paper had launched an “investigation” into Calvin’s old tweets.
The Register is aware of reports of inappropriate social media posts by one of our staffers, and an investigation has begun.— Des Moines Register (@DMRegister) September 25, 2019
And this is why we can’t have nice things.