Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin came across some feel-bad information recently while researching the feel-good story of the year in Iowa.
The article he was working on was a profile of Carson King, a 24-year-old casino security guard who'd held up a handmade sign when he was in the background crowd for ESPN's "College GameDay" show as it aired live Sept. 14 from the Iowa State University campus in Ames prior to a rivalry football game against the University of Iowa.
"Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished," said King's sign. It included the address of his account on the Venmo digital payment platform.
Surprisingly, viewers donated. And when King's beer fund reached $600 he announced that he'd forward all donations to the Stead Family Children's Hospital in Iowa City. That's the hospital that overlooks Kinnick Stadium, home field for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. And, speaking of feel-good stories, it's the hospital to which fans now ritually turn at the end of the first quarter and wave to young patients watching from the upper floors.
Local, national and social media amplified King's fundraising effort, Anheuser-Busch and Venmo announced they would match all donations, and pretty soon the total amount raised for charity approached $1 million.
Reporter Calvin, 27, set to work on what would become an approximately 2,000-word "Meet Carson King" story. And as part of his reporting "he did a routine background check on King that included a review of publicly visible social media posts, a standard part of a reporter's work on a profile," as Executive Editor Carol Hunter later wrote.
Journalists perform such due diligence to guard against presenting misleadingly incomplete information about a subject.
Calvin found two racist posts in King's Twitter feed - "one comparing black mothers to gorillas and another making light of black people killed in the holocaust," as he later wrote. They were from 2012. When King was 16. He expressed remorse when Calvin asked him about them and the tweets have since been deleted.
Hunter wrote: "That prompted a discussion involving several Register editors about how best to proceed: Should that material be included in the profile at all? 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?"
My answer would have been an emphatic no. He was 16, for pity's sake. Why risk choking off donations to a children's hospital over an adolescent display of ignorance no doubt intended for a then-tiny audience of friends?
The editors decided otherwise. They had Calvin include a discussion of King's offending tweets in seven paragraphs at the bottom of his story. "The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King," Hunter later wrote.
Of course not!
King tried to mitigate the damage by calling a news conference to apologize for the tweets before Calvin's story posted, but Anheuser-Busch announced that because King's old posts didn't "align with our values as a brand or as a company ... we will have no further association with him."
The story gets worse. Many members of the public were outraged at what they considered the Register's gratuitous humiliation of a local hero and decided to take it out on reporter Calvin by scouring his social media feeds.
BuzzFeed News reported that in since-deleted posts dating from 2010, when Calvin also was a teenager, "he had used 'gay' as a pejorative, written 'f--- all cops,'" and twice used a form of the n-word while quoting "others, including a Kanye West lyric." In 2012 he reportedly posted, "Now that gay marriage is legal, I'm totally going to marry a horse."
The Register, which evidently didn't scour Calvin's background when hiring him the way it had asked Calvin to scour King's background for a story, fired the reporter. Editor Hunter's note to readers unctuously pledged to reexamine "policies for backgrounding individuals in stories, with particular attention to acts committed by juveniles and to the newsworthiness of that information years later."
The good news is that the fundraising drive surged in spite of the controversy and netted a reported $3 million for the hospital. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds declared Saturday "Carson King Day" in honor of King's generosity and kindness.
The bad news is that old social media posts remain a minefield for anyone who was immature or even just occasionally imprudent or cruel in the internet age. And all such people are at the risk of being humiliated and banished from polite society in what's now referred to as our "cancel culture."
It's beyond time for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all similar platforms to be required by law to have a default setting (one that any user could opt to override) that deletes or hides in a private archive all posts more than three months old (I highly recommend the third-party service TweetDelete.net for this purpose).
The lesson of the King and Calvin story is that such posts - not just jokes but also photos and videos - are of interest only to those plumbing your past for embarrassing or scandalous material. If you don't care about your reputation or your career, leave them up by all means. Otherwise ...
ABOUT THE WRITER
Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com