Des Moines Register grapples with how to handle reporter’s past tweets

Aaron Calvin (Photo: LinkedIn)

Aaron Calvin did not show up to work on Wednesday.

One day after going viral for all the wrong reasons, the Des Moines Register’s “trending” reporter is in a state of employment flux as the newspaper’s top brass tries to figure out how to handle social media posts he published prior to his job at the news outlet.

On Tuesday, social media sleuths began digging into Calvin’s Twitter accounts for any signs of dirt after Calvin used two decades-old tweets in a story about an Iowa man who went viral during a televised football game.

That man, Carson King, became a local television sensation after ESPN cameras caught him holding up a sign that read “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished” during a recent college football matchup in nearby Ames.

Thousands of dollars flowed his way. King said he would donate the money to charity. InBev, the parent company of Busch Light maker Anheuser Busch, said it would donate money, too. Over $1 million was eventually donated to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital after additional companies, including Paypal-owned payment processor Venmo, agreed to match contributions.

At some point, Calvin decided to review several years worth of tweets on King’s social media account. a Register editor justified the search, calling it a “routine background check.” Calvin wasn’t the only one to do the search — at least one other TV station did the same — but the Register was the first to publish them in a report about King, timed to get ahead of the local news broadcasts and “scoop” competitors in other media.

The scoop went backwards for Calvin after angry social media users decided to dig into his social profile. What the found was far worse than what King wrote: Several racist, homophobic and sexual remarks published when Calvin was a staffer at national news outlets.

In one tweet, Calvin wrote he wanted to “grow up and read sex scenes to high schoolers.” That post was made in 2013 when he was an intern at BuzzFeed, according to a LinkedIn profile reviewed by The Desk. In another tweet, he targeted the New York Police Department with profanity in response to a story about a rapper who was arrested over drug charges. That tweet was posted when Calvin worked as a content strategist for Storyful, a social media licensing company owned by News Corporation.

In other tweets, Calvin used racial epithets about black people and compared gay marriage to bestiality — all while working as strategist, producer or reporter for news outlets.

Late Tuesday evening, Gannett-owned Register responded to the social media backlash, saying they were made aware of Calvin’s posts and had launched an investigation into them. Calvin quickly posted an apology before locking down his Twitter account.

Executive Editor Carol Hunter declined to comment about Calvin’s employment status when reached by The Desk on Wednesday. But sources at the Register confirmed Calvin was not in the newsroom one day after his tweets resurfaced and that editors and other managerial staff within the company are trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.

On the one hand, Calvin’s offensive tweets were several years old, and they were posted before he took the job with the Register last year. For this reason, his managers are trying to figure out if he can, or should, be held to account for what he said several years ago.

On the other hand, some inside the newsroom disagreed with the paper’s ultimate decision to publish references to King’s tweets in its news coverage yesterday. Reporters and other staffers have expressed concern that publishing King’s tweets — made almost 10 years ago when he was a teenager — would hold an ordinary citizen to a higher standard than Calvin — whose tweets were fresher and who is also considered by many to be a public figure by virtue of his newsroom job — if the paper did not act decisively and swiftly.

“It really boils down to whether or not [Calvin] will have a job at the end of the week,” one staffer, who asked not to be identified, said by text message. “If he does, the paper looks bad. If he doesn’t, the paper looks bad.”

One person who doesn’t look bad anymore: Carson King. Though InBev announced they would sever ties with the 24-year-old, others have pledged to continue working with him. And on Wednesday, Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds declared September 28 to be “Carson King Day” across the state in recognition of the man’s charitable acts.

“Individuals like Carson King demonstrate how ‘Iowa Nice’ isn’t just a slogan, but our way of life,” Reynolds wrote.

Thanks for reading and supporting The Desk. If you have a question, comment or news tip, send a message by email or text, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Also, check out our new membership service The Desk: Pro Access for exclusive reporting, news scoops and in-depth analysis.