Former Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin is not a victim. He is, however, a sacrificial lamb who shouldn’t have lost his job.
Calvin was fired after the Register published a profile of Iowa resident Carson King, a casino security guard who raised over one million dollars for a local children’s hospital after his appearance on an ESPN college football program went viral. King was caught on camera with a sign asking for money to replenish his supply of Busch Light beer. He received about $600 via Venmo and subsequently donated the money to the Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City. After news of his generosity began to spread online, more money started to roll in, and Anheuser-Busch and Venmo promised to match the donations King raised for the hospital. Several major Iowa companies chipped in with donations of their own.
On Tuesday, September 24, the Des Moines Register ran its profile of Carson King, which was authored by Aaron Calvin. During what he called a “routine background check of King's social media,” Calvin discovered a couple of racist jokes that King tweeted when he was 16 years old. For reasons beyond my comprehension, Calvin and his bosses at the Register decided to include this wholly impertinent news in their profile of King.
Before the profile was published, King issued a statement acknowledging the tweets and apologizing for them, but that wasn’t enough to dissuade Anheuser-Busch from cutting off their relationship with him, though they did later clarify that they would uphold their promise to match donations raised through King’s efforts.
The backlash to the Register piece was immediate and overwhelming, and for good reason; there isn’t an adult anywhere in this world that is the same person today as they were as teenagers. The continuous, uninterruptible process that we call the human experience ensures that we never stop learning, never stop growing, and, most importantly, never lose the capacity to redefine ourselves, hence why so many of us often find it intuitively unreasonable to pass judgment on adults for the sins of their youth. Carson King’s charity is a much better indicator of his present character than a couple of offensive 8-year-old tweets. If we must judge him, we should judge him by the actions that made him known to us in the here and now. Fortunately, the general public’s response to this story seems to indicate that they’ve come to the same conclusion.
Fate hasn’t been quite as kind to Aaron Calvin. Turns out he had a few embarrassing tweets of his own that were unearthed by social media sleuths, and the Register ultimately decided it was best for the two parties to go their separate ways.
So, karma gets the last laugh, and we should all be happy about that, right? That seems to be the consensus on social media, but I don’t think I agree. I’m not convinced that Calvin’s dismissal is anything more than a hollow victory for opponents of cancel culture and “gotcha” journalism.
In a statement published September 26, Des Moines Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter clarified that neither Carson King nor the Register had informed Anheuser-Busch of King’s past tweets, meaning that the company chose to sever its ties with King before he had the chance to publicly address and apologize for the tweets in question. In other words, so fearful were they of cancel culture’s ability to tarnish its targets’ reputations, Anheuser-Busch decided to wave a white flag before the battle over Carson King’s anticipated cancellation had even begun. And if the company doesn’t suffer any financial damage as a result of that decision, the lesson learned will be that capitulation, even when it’s premature and likely unnecessary, is still the safest, most practical option in these types of situations.
Cancel culture’s influence depends heavily on its power to inflict severe financial harm to its targets, and the blowback to Calvin’s piece hasn’t really done much to curtail that influence. For that to happen, the consequences for Anheuser-Busch need to be much more serious than a few days’ worth of negative publicity. The corporate world needs to know that acting in deference to cancel culture carries its own risks, risks severe enough to make them stop and think twice before throwing citizens like Carson King under the bus.
Similarly, media outlets that engage in gotcha journalism must be held accountable for their role in legitimizing and perpetuating cancel culture. Carol Hunter has not indicated that anyone at the Register other than Aaron Calvin will suffer any professional consequences for the way the paper handled King’s story. But if we take Calvin’s words at face value, he was only following orders when he excavated King’s old tweets—remember, he claimed that the tweets were discovered during a “routine background check.” The insinuation is that burrowing through the social media accounts of the subjects of all their stories is standard practice at the Register, and that Calvin was only doing what he was expected to do. Additionally, King’s old tweets would never have made it into Calvin’s piece without approval from Calvin’s superiors, including the aforementioned Carol Hunter.
Yes, the Register has indeed promised to modify its policies and procedures, but will that prove sufficient? Will any other media outlets follow suit? We’ve been down this road many times before, and nothing ever seems to change. Last December, on the night that then-Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray was awarded the Heisman Trophy, USA Today decided it would be a good time to talk about some of the problematic tweets Murray posted as a teenager. Many a Twitter user took exception to the tabloid-esque decision to try to drag Murray down on one of the biggest nights of his life, but then everyone moved on, and USA Today never faced any real consequences. Will the Carson King controversy play out the same way for the Register?
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Calvin reiterated that it was his former superiors at the Register who instructed him to dig into King’s social media history. He also confirmed that they had told him to ask King about the controversial tweets that had been uncovered during the background check. “Throughout this entire process of the discovery and inclusion of the tweets, the editor knew, the editorial board knew, and the executive editor knew how I’d included them and handled them for the article, and as far as I knew, approved of that,” he explained in the interview.
So really, Calvin didn’t do much wrong here. It was his editors who set this whole debacle in motion. Sure, he didn’t do himself any favors by trying to pass this controversy off as a political campaign “taken up by right-wing ideologues and largely driven by that force,” but that doesn’t change the fact that, at the end of the day, the buck doesn’t stop with Calvin; it stops with the editors at the Register. Yet when the time came for the paper to make amends, it was Calvin—the person least responsible for this huge mess—who got the ax. That’s a problem, and it’s a problem because Calvin’s firing doesn’t communicate the message that the media needed to hear.
If Calvin’s old bosses at the Register ultimately emerge from this ordeal unscathed, and if the paper itself isn’t forced to absorb any measurable, temporary blow to its bottom line, what will be the takeaway for the rest of the industry? That when media bigwigs find themselves in hot water, all they need to do to mollify their critics is toss them an underling’s scalp? That being stationed at the top of the totem pole means never having to take the blame for your own editorial misjudgments?
The general public is growing increasingly fed up with cancel culture, and their passive indifference to gotcha journalism is starting to transform into palpable rage and resentment. But if they want things to change, they’ll have to aim higher than they did in this case. Aaron Calvin may have deserved some sort of discipline for his own past offensive tweets, but he did not deserve to be fired. If someone had to lose their job, it should have been someone much higher up in the chain of command. Personally, I don’t feel it necessarily had to come to that. I believe there were other remedies available to the Register that would have satisfied the need for genuine accountability without ruining anyone’s career. But instead, they decided to simply feed Calvin to the wolves in the hopes that it would wipe this entire ordeal from the public’s memory faster than you can say “you’re fired.” And the disappointing thing is, that’s probably just what’s going to happen.