The Des Moines Register reporter fired in the wake of a scandal involving offensive tweets — posted by a viral star he interviewed and then his own — broke his silence Friday, telling BuzzFeed News he had been “abandoned” by the newspaper after following standard editorial practice by performing a social media search on the person he was profiling.
“This event basically set my entire life on fire,” reporter Aaron Calvin said.
Calvin, 27, was dismissed by the Iowa newspaper Thursday evening following criticism online in the wake of his article about 24-year-old casino security worker Carson King.
On Sept. 14 at the Iowa State University vs. University of Iowa football game in Ames, King had appeared in the background of ESPN’s College GameDay holding a sign that said “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished,” along with his Venmo handle. After King received $600, he announced he would instead donate his growing beer fund to a local children’s hospital. The fundraiser soon went viral, and Venmo and Anheuser-Busch offered to match the donations. King wound up raising over $1 million, and he was quickly catapulted into being a local legend and viral internet hero.
Upon the fundraiser hitting the million-dollar mark, Calvin decided to profile King, whom he’d already covered in several stories. But soon Calvin, who worked as a BuzzFeed employee between 2013 and 2014, found two racist tweets King had posted when he was 16. Calvin wrote that the tweets, which have since been deleted, were jokes “comparing black mothers to gorillas and another making light of black people killed in the Holocaust.”
Calvin told BuzzFeed News it’s standard practice at the Des Moines Register to background check people they profile through court records and social media. “I was reminded by an editor to background Carson...and I found a few tweets that he published in high school that were racist jokes,” he said. “I knew if I found them, other people would find them as well.”
Des Moines Register executive editor Carol Hunter declined to comment for this story, but referred BuzzFeed News to an op-ed she published in which she called “backgrounding” an “essential” part of reporting. “The process helps us to understand the whole person,” she wrote.
Calvin said his editors told him to ask King about the tweets, so he did. "He was deeply regretful, and I recognized that these were not representative artifacts of Carson,” Calvin said.
In writing his profile, Calvin said he decided to include just a “brief mention of these tweets and his apology at the bottom of this profile, after the glowing synopsis of his charity.” The reporter said he felt an obligation to share the information he’d uncovered with the public, but thought he did so in a “thoughtful” way that showed the tweets no longer showed King’s worldview.
He also maintained he did this with the full blessing and awareness of senior editors. “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 said.
On Tuesday night, before the profile was published, King held a press conference to apologize for the tweets, which he said had been found by a reporter. He said he wrote the posts when he was a high school sophomore and had been making reference to the show Tosh.0.
“In re-reading it today — eight years later — I see it was an attempt at humor that was offensive and hurtful,” he continued. “I am embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was 16 years old. I want to sincerely apologize.”
Anheuser-Busch cut ties with King after the press conference. King said he did not blame Calvin, saying that he appreciated that he’d pointed out the tweets and had simply wanted to apologize. “The Des Moines Register has been nothing but kind in all of their coverage, and I appreciate the reporter pointing out the post to me,” he tweeted.
Upon publishing the story, Calvin said he was immediately met with criticism from people across Iowa who accused him of trying to denigrate a local hero.
But any media ethics debate about the newsworthiness of tweets written by someone when they were a teenager was soon swept aside by a tidal wave of harassment, doxing, and death threats Calvin received.
Soon, 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.”
Calvin said editors at the Des Moines Register directed him to apologize in a tweet, which he said he agreed to do because he was “afraid and just trying to comply with what I was being told so I could possibly hold onto my job.”
In the tweet, Calvin apologized for “not holding myself to the same high standards as The Register holds others.”
“I regret publishing that tweet now,” Calvin told BuzzFeed News. “Because I was never trying to hold Carson to any kind of ‘higher standard’ or any kind of standard at all. I was trying to do my job as a reporter, and I think I did so to the best of my ability.”
As soon as the story broke, Calvin said he began receiving a barrage of death threats. He said HR reps at Gannett, which owns the Des Moines Register, forbade him from speaking to the media and told him to leave his apartment for his own safety. They offered to put him up in a hotel, but he stayed with a friend instead.
“I recognize that I’m not the first person to be doxed like this — 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.”
On Thursday, while he was speaking to police about the death threats, Calvin said he got a call from Gannett representatives. “They told me they were going to offer me an option — that I could resign or I could be fired — with no severance,” he said. “It was really a semantic difference, I guess, so I chose to be fired.”
A Gannett spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the company does not comment on personnel matters.
In her op-ed, Hunter, the executive editor, wrote they were now evaluating how reporters perform background checks on subjects and what information should be published from those checks. She said their focus was partly on “the shift in social media culture and how activities on those platforms reflect upon a person’s newsworthiness in general.”
With regard to Calvin’s firing, Hunter wrote that they “took appropriate action because there is nothing more important in journalism than having readers’ trust.”
King did not respond to a request for comment on Calvin’s dismissal.
Calvin said he hasn’t heard from Gannett or his newsroom leaders since his firing, but said some of his former coworkers have reached out in support.
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. “As I said when I was speaking with Carson, I don’t think people’s past social media statements should be made to make blanket characterizations about them,” he said.
He also expressed his frustration about the “false narrative about me ‘canceling’ Carson.”
“Carson was never in danger of being canceled — there was no attempt or intent to quote-unquote ‘cancel’ him,’” Calvin said. “He’s raised hundreds of thousands more dollars since this happened. The governor of Iowa declared a ‘Carson King Day.’”
(“You can make a mistake in your life, and still go on to do amazing things,” Gov. Kim Reynolds tweeted Wednesday. “@CarsonKing2, thank you for reminding us all of that! #IowaProud.”)
Calvin said he’s still afraid to go out in public and is still staying at his friend’s house. He isn’t sure what he will do next, but hopes he can keep reporting.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” he said. “I feel like I’m a good writer and a good reporter and I was doing my job to the best of my ability.”
Calvin said he also still deeply believes in the “necessity of local journalism.”
“Frankly, it’s really disappointing to me to be abandoned by my former employer,” he said. “I still in a lot of ways support the Register — I just wish they had believed in me.”