Carol Hunter, the executive editor of the Des Moines Register, published a statement Thursday night announcing that the paper had fired reporter Aaron Calvin.
The Des Moines Register staff has heard from hundreds of people in the past few days upset over our handling of a story on Carson King, the 24-year-old whose Busch Light sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” show launched more than a million dollars in donations to an Iowa children’s hospital…
And we hear you: You’re angry, you’re disappointed and you want us to understand that.
I want to be as transparent as possible about what we did and why, answer the questions you’ve raised and tell you what we’ve learned so far and what we’ll try to do better. For one, we’re revising our policies and practices, including those that did not uncover our own reporter’s past inappropriate social media postings. That reporter is no longer with the Register…
Calvin is the reporter who wrote a profile of an Iowa man named Carson King. After King’s beer sign went viral, he raised over a million dollars for a local children’s hospital. In putting together the profile of King, Calvin uncovered two racist tweets King had published about 8 years ago when he was just sixteen. King immediately apologized publicly but Anheuser-Busch distanced itself from him (though it didn’t rescind its donation to the hospital).
The Register published the story including a reference to the old tweets and received an angry backlash from readers who argued that the tweets had nothing to do with the substance of the story. Part of that backlash included people digging into reporter Aaron Calvin’s old tweets, which also contained his use of the n-word and some ugly comments about the police. Executive editor Carol Hunter addressed Calvin’s tweets in her statement:
Until readers called to our attention some inappropriate posts from several years ago, the Register was unaware of them.
Employees of the Register are vetted through typical employment screening methods, which can include a review of past social media activity, but the screening processes did not surface those tweets. Register employees additionally must review and agree to a company-wide social media policy that includes a statement that employees “do not post comments that include discriminatory remarks, harassment, threats of violence or similar content.” We also have policies that speak to our company values.
We took appropriate action because there is nothing more important in journalism than having readers’ trust.
The problem, of course, is that reporter Aaron Calvin didn’t decide to publish the information about the tweets on his own. So whatever fallout Carson King experienced wasn’t the fault of Aaron Calvin acting on his own. Hunter admits editors were involved in the decision making about what to publish but claims that Anheuser-Busch decided to distance itself from King without being contacted by the Register about his old tweets:
We ultimately decided to include a few paragraphs at the bottom of the story. As it turned out, our decision-making process was preempted when King held his evening news conference to discuss his tweets and when Busch Light’s parent company announced it would sever its future ties with King.
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.
So the Register uncovered the tweets, contacted King about them and then, somehow, Anheuser-Busch dropped King all in the space of a few hours without anyone notifying them? That’s a hell of a coincidence. Maybe Anheuser-Busch can clarify how that happened. Until they do, I’m going to reserve judgment on the Register’s claim they had nothing to do with this.
In any case, it wasn’t Aaron Calvin’s decision to publish the old tweets on his own. Granted it’s hard to feel sorry for Calvin under the circumstances but the editors who approved what he was doing don’t seem to have suffered any consequences for their role in this.