Point/Counterpoint: What’s the takeaway from Carson King?

The Altoona, Iowa, man has made news with both his charity and social media. Two DI columnists discuss the sides of the story.

September 30, 2019

Iowans’ defense of Carson King beats offensive media

The backlash against Anheuser-Busch and the Des Moines Register has been fierce. Fellow Iowans blew up my social-media news feeds last week with memes defending Carson King. Gov. Kim Reynolds invited King to the State Capitol, took a selfie with him, and declared Sept. 28 as “Carson King Day.”

To recap, King has now raised more than $2 million since his poster asking for beer money went viral, and he pledged to donate excess funds to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Social media has given King a roller-coaster ride over the past couple weeks. Busch and Venmo vowed to match the donations, and Busch Light even made cans with his face on them.

After two controversial tweets resurfaced from his sophomore year of high school, Anheuser-Busch abruptly cut ties with King. While the tweets were indeed offensive, digging through social media to find dirt on others is destructive. It also poses an indirect threat to free speech.

The Register reporter who muckraked the years-old tweets, Aaron Calvin, was fired after his own racist tweets were discovered. Calvin blamed “right-wing idealogues” for his termination in an interview with BuzzFeed News. He compared his struggles with those of black and female journalists.

Calvin may be a bad actor, but he isn’t the real problem. The larger issue is that multiple editors above him deemed it necessary to publicize ancient tweets, even though King had immediately and emphatically apologized for them. 

A statement from Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter stated that King’s press conference to address the social-media posts was called before the news outlet published any of the content Calvin found. However, King never would have had to publicly address those old remarks had he not been prompted to respond to the reporter’s questions. 

Journalists have an occupational duty to minimize harm and focus their spotlights on that which is newsworthy. The Register failed to meet both of those standards Sept. 24.

“They were really quick to judge his character by a statement he made that mimicked a popular TV show when he was 16,” Glenn Cole, head brewer at Geneseo Brewing Company, told WQAD

The company partnered with Carson on a $5 beer called the Iowa Legend. Those limited-edition beers sold out quickly, and $1 from each went to the Children’s Hospital. That sort of charity is an undeniable good and didn’t need to be hindered.

What’s more is that King was a private citizen when he was 16 years old. Although he’s gained notoriety, he remains a private citizen. It’s not as if he’s an elected official who serves the public and is paid with taxpayer dollars; all of King’s public notoriety has been built in less than a month.

For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Calvin’s digging led to something potentially newsworthy. Imagine that King had spent his teenage years in a skinhead neo-Nazi group, but had since experienced a change of heart. Now, our hypothetical friend is living differently, trying to leave those old hateful ways behind him.

Would he deserve to have a major newspaper unleash that dirt into the public square for the entire world to scrutinize? I say no.

The puritanical media practice of scouring the internet for career-ending information destroys the reputations of people who’ve made mistakes and spent years trying to rectify them. Americans cherish their First Amendment right to free speech, and this type of cancel culture hinders the ability to exercise that freedom candidly.

One silver lining is that I’ve never seen such unified opposition to almost anything. Most people recognize how embarrassing it would be if a news outlet put their pasts under a microscope. 

The most important part of all of this is that there are so many children with disabilities and illnesses who will have a better quality of life for a long time thanks to King’s creative philanthropy. He has proven through his actions to be a kind and selfless man with nothing but kind words for Anheuser-Busch and the Register.

King isn’t the tragic victim some say he is

For better or worse, everyone in Iowa knows the name Carson King for two reasons: his massive GoFundMe to donate to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital and the subsequent revelation of small tweets of his from when he was 16 years old.

Now, this just seems like one of many stories of someone doing something and digging up old tweets dug with which to bash them. But King’s case is somewhat different. Here, King did everything right and came out for the better unilaterally.

King still has money flowing into the Venmo campaign for the donation. He participated in the wave at the most recent Hawkeye game. Iowa even has Carson King Day now. The fact that he made these tweets hasn’t changed public perception of him at all.

If anything, King is more of a hero now. He’s the archetypal redemption story of “did dumb stuff as a teenager and corrected his bad ways,” in the smallest of ways. The publication of his tweets has only humanized him. If the social-media reaction is any indication, most Iowans are solidly on King’s side.

To the credit of the Des Moines Register, the reporter asked King about his old tweets before publishing. According to the paper’s executive editor Carol Hunter, the news organization had not yet decided whether it would publish any information regarding the tweets before King called a press conference to address the posts. King took this revelation respectfully and with poise, gracious to his detractors. He even made sure to absolve the Register of any wrongdoing.

But there are three other things that must be said. First of all, nothing destructive happened because the Register published this information; the donations to the Children’s Hospital are still coming in. Second, the Register has been thorough in explaining their decision making; they have also changed their back- ground-check procedures to protect the actions of minors. Finally, it still would have happened had media outlets had not gone looking through his social media.

Busch Light canceled its association with King before he even made his apology and before the Register reached out to contact him. People still would have asked questions about why Busch Light canceled such an amazing guy, and they would have pointed to the tweets.

When the Register reached out for comment, King didn’t attempt to make excuses or shift the blame. He owned it. He immediately recognized what he did as wrong and took proper steps to apologize for his actions.

And that is the root of the issue.

In a day and age where everything online is being recorded and noted by the government and corporations, every mistake we make is forever. For better or for worse, your job, your family, your friends, can see everything. And the worst part of it is, most of it will be seen out of context.

It’s the old rule of, “If you wouldn’t say it in front of your grandmother, don’t say it at all.” Because unlike your grandmother, the internet is not going to forgive you as quickly or as easily.

A perfect example of this is Aaron Calvin, the reporter who went digging for though King’s years-old Twitter posts. A spot check of his own account found several offensive comments, sparking outrage and claims of hypocrisy on behalf of the Register — except, there is no hypocrisy. Calvin lost his job. King is still king.

As for the larger societal impact, “cancel culture” isn’t taking over, especially in King’s case. It’s not as though those who wanted to see King canceled managed to do much. If anything, King is even more supported because of this story raising his profile. He may have a few enemies, but he has many more supporters.

King may have a little tarnish on his reputation now, but his original cause is still thriving. More than $2 million has been raised thanks to his efforts. Corporate sponsors haven’t backed out amid the media firestorm. Whatever fault there may be in cancel culture, the kids are still being helped.

Everyone makes mistakes, but words said on the internet last forever. King understands this. It’s time the rest of us do the same.

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