That’s when Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin set out to profile King — and found two offensive tweets the 24-year-old had sent when he was 16.
That discovery has now sparked an acrimonious conflict, as King quickly lost his partnership with Anheuser-Busch, and the Des Moines Register scrambled to explain its decision to report on the old tweets in the first place — particularly after critics Tuesday turned up multiple offensive tweets once sent by Calvin, forcing the paper to open a new investigation into its own reporter.
“Some of the toughest decisions in journalism are about what to publish — or not,” Des Moines Register executive editor Carol Hunter wrote in a Tuesday statement defending the paper’s choice to report on King’s old posts, adding that “such decisions are not made lightly and are rooted in what we perceive as the public good.”
The story marks the latest battle over “cancel culture,” the same debate over how to handle offensive statements that roiled the comedy world earlier this month when “Saturday Night Live” fired a new featured player over racist language he’d used about Asian people on a podcast.
King’s social media missteps came to light after Calvin, a trending news reporter at the Register, delved far back into the casino security guard’s old tweets. Calvin discovered two 2012 tweets, written when King was in high school, that the Register described as “racist jokes, one comparing black mothers to gorillas and another making light of black people killed in the holocaust.” When Calvin asked King about the tweets, he told the reporter seeing them made him feel “sick.”
Before the Register published its profile online, though, King held a news conference on Tuesday evening to apologize for the posts and to announce that Anheuser-Busch had ended its partnership with him. The beer maker still promised to donate the more than $350,000 it had already pledged to the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.
King explained that the tweets had been jokes among friends watching Comedy Central’s “Tosh.0” and that he didn’t remember them until Calvin dug them up.
“Once he pointed it out and I went back and looked at it I was really upset with myself,” King said on Twitter, adding that he did not blame the newspaper, which he said had been “nothing but kind in all of their coverage.”
But online, backlash to the Register’s reporting began brewing immediately.
Critics questioned why Calvin had dug so far into the past of a previously ordinary person who wasn’t directly profiting from his newfound, accidental fame. Conservative bloggers latched on to the incident as an example of alleged hypocrisy of reporters tarring people’s reputations based on long-ago poor decisions.
Many balked when Anheuser-Busch announced Tuesday afternoon that the company had cut ties with King, saying his posts “do not align with our values as a brand or as a company.” The Des Moines Register published a story Wednesday clarifying that Busch cut ties with King seven hours before the newspaper’s profile appeared online and the company did not learn about the tweets from either King or the reporter.
Around 9:30 p.m., the Register published the profile, which mentions King’s offensive tweets deep in the story.
As a clamor grew against that decision, the newspaper’s executive editor published a letter on Twitter shortly before midnight, explaining in detail the editors’ deliberations and why they decided to include the tweets. She said that staff heavily debated whether to write about King’s two offensive tweets.
“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?” Hunter wrote. “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?”
The paper’s editors landed on a compromise, Hunter said: Publishing the information, but not making it a major focus of the story.
“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.”
The statement did little to quell the anger bubbling on Twitter. And that fury intensified as critics began digging through Calvin’s old tweets — and soon found several that appeared to be at least as problematic as King’s two racist jokes riffing off a 2012 comedy show.
Between 2010 and 2013, Calvin published tweets that used a racist slur for black people, made light of abusing women, used the word “gay” as a pejorative and mocked the legalization of same-sex marriage by saying he was “totally going to marry a horse.” The Register’s statement on Twitter was soon flooded with images of the reporter’s offensive comments.
By late Tuesday night, Calvin began deleting old tweets, and then locked his account early Wednesday morning after posting an apology.
“Hey just wanted to say that I have deleted previous tweets that have been inappropriate or insensitive,” he wrote on Twitter. “I apologize for not holding myself to the same high standards as the Register holds others.”
When reached for comment early Wednesday morning, Hunter said the Register was aware of the posts, but declined to comment further on Calvin’s old tweets beyond noting the investigation.
In response to Busch rescinding it’s offer to provide a one-year supply of beer to King in cans embossed with his face, several local brands pledged new donations to the fundraiser, the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.
Iowa-based Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe created a beer-flavored soft-serve. The ice cream shop originally planned to make a Busch Light-flavor, but changed course Wednesday and will instead use beer donated by Iowa’s Gezellig Brewing Company. Smokey Row Coffee, a local cafe, promised half-priced pumpkin spice lattes until Monday. DeWit Construction, which employs King’s brother, will still give $300 for every new roof installed during the fundraiser. Nearby in Illinois, Geneseo Brewing Co. announced plans for an “Iowa Legend” pilsner, taking back the label from Busch, which had planned to print the title below King’s face on its cans.
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