Journalism: Follow up on the Des Moines Register fiasco

Journalism: Follow up on the Des Moines Register fiasco

As you may know, during the past week, Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin dug up two offensive tweets (out of 3,700) made by a mega charity fundraiser named Carson King – from when he was 16 years old. As a high school sophomore, he allegedly tweeted quotes from a Comedy Central program’s racially insensitive and offensive comments.

The paper said they routinely background check the subjects of their news stories including combing through their social media. [Word to the now wiser: Never talk to reporters!]

The paper, however, did not check old social media posts of their own employees and treat them as harshly as reporting subjects. Their 27 year old reporter had made numerous, vile and offensive comments on Twitter when he was 20 years old. His comments were homophobic, racist, sexist, anti-police and that he hated America.

Following outrage from their subscribers over the paper’s double standard and “gotcha” journalism that must always turn a positive story into a negative, the paper backpedaled and fired the reporter. No management was harmed in the making of this mess in spite of their flawed internal editing, policies and background checks of staff.

The editor of the paper defends their background check of story subjects, including examining the social media of subjects from when they were children – even though actual criminal records are sealed for children and not accessible because – children:

As journalists, we have the obligation to look into matters completely, to aid the public in understanding the people we write about and in some cases to whom money is donated.


“The process helps us to understand the whole person

The paper that wanted “to understand the whole person” left out any mention of these tweets from Carson King:

The paper’s “complete” coverage failed to note these exculpatory tweets. The paper either failed to do a thorough job or intentionally chose to practice “gotcha” negativity journalism. They did not do complete coverage of their subject as the above tweets highlight.

The reporter, Aaron Calvin defends his action in an interview given to Buzzfeed News in which he seems to lack self awareness:

  • “This event basically set my entire life on fire,” reporter Aaron Calvin said.[How is that different than what he did to Carson King ?]
  • Conspiracy theory deflection: “[Blame goes to] influential right-wing media figures also began circulating screenshots of Calvin’s own past offensive tweets that had been uncovered. In posts dating back to 2010, Calvin had used “gay” as a pejorative, written “fuck all cops,” and spelled out the word “niggas” twice when he was quoting others, including a Kanye West lyric. “Now that gay marriage is legal,” he wrote in one 2012 tweet, “I’m totally going to marry a horse.” Calvin told BuzzFeed News these were “frankly embarrassing” tweets that he “would not have published today,” but said they had been “taken out of context” and were being used to “wield disingenuous arguments against me.”
    “Though Calvin said he regrets his tweets, he thinks they were taken out of context by bad actors to make him look like a racist and homophobe.“[How are his tweets different than cherry picking selective tweets from Carson King? How is the context different for King but not Calvin? The “out of context” defense is commonly made by journalists caught with offensive past tweets.]
  • Calvin is the victim and conspiracy theory: “this whole campaign was taken up by right-wing ideologues and largely driven by that force,” he said. “It was just a taste of what I assume that women and journalists of color suffer all the time, but the kind of locality and regional virality of the story made it so intense.”[What?]
  • Aaron Calvin is a former employee of Buzzfeed News which introduces a conflict of interest to his being interviewed by Buzzfeed.
  • Compare Calvin’s comments to the dignified comments of Carson King after his own tweets were outed.

There were multiple events of the past two weeks, only some of which I posted to this blog. The media has  tarnished itself  – but blames everyone else. The media operate with an elitist, holier-than-thou attitude and believe rules they apply to everyone else do not apply to members of the media. Their primary purpose is negativity – which has been found to appeal to humans – driving eyeballs to advertisers. The side effect of this is to create mass mental health problems of depression and anxiety (as documented in the literature and cited on this blog).

We live, overall, in the best of times. But the media’s continuous focus on negativity, outrage culture and anger fosters bitterness, depression and anxiety. They are not providing the public with a balanced perspective on the world around us.

The media has lost our trust.


In the few days after this unfolded, the Des Moines Register has run a LOT of positive and up lifting news stories, a change that many of their readers have noticed and made comments about on social media. Perhaps they listened to the complaints about nonstop negativity and are making changes. Time will tell.

I do not think the reporter should have been fired but realistically, his career at the paper was over due to his being linked to the fiasco and his being disliked by Iowans. No one would trust his reporting there again.

He did what he was told to do (“routine” background check of subject’s social media) and the reporting of it was approved by editors, who failed to vet the reporter’s own background. Editor’s should have been walked out but none were harmed in this fiasco.

After being fired, the reporter made self centered comments turning himself into a blameless victim and alleging conspiracy theories. This did not reflect well on him and seems, in retrospect, to have justified the firing.

Update November:

Oddly, he omits his employment from the Des Moines Register on his personal web site, although he does link to past articles he wrote there. It is understandable he would not want to revisit the DMR fiasco. Again, I view this as primarily a failed management and editorial direction problem, which adopted a policy to peruse the very old social media posts of subjects, but not that of their own staff.



Never, Ever leave a reporter in a room alone, with a number

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