I wasn’t going to write about the whole Carson King / Anheuser-Busch / Des Moines Register fiasco, but given the aftershocks that are still reverberating here in Iowa, I feel I must.
I have readers from outside Iowa who may have no idea what I’m talking about, so a brief recap is in order. Way back on September 14th, at the Iowa v Iowa State football game, a 24 year old ISU fan named Carson King held up a sign behind an ESPN broadcast, asking people to donate to his Venmo account to replenish his Busch Light supply. (Why Busch Light is such a thing in Iowa, especially in this wonderful era of delicious craft beers, I have no idea, but I’ll let that pass.)
Carson received hundreds of dollars in donations! Rather than purchasing a ridiculous amount of beer that would certainly have damaged his liver, he decided to donate it to the University of Iowa’s Stead Children’s Hospital. After that announcement, he received a enormous number of individual donations which, along with contributions from both Venmo and Anheuser-Busch, ultimately resulted in over $3 million donated to the hospital. Three million dollars! Anheuser-Busch even designed a special Busch Light can in honor of Carson:
Great story, right? If only it had ended there!
Unfortunately, the Des Moines Register decided to do a story about Carson, and in the process a Register reporter uncovered that Carson had posted two racist tweets when he was 16 years old. The upshot of that is that Anheuser-Busch dropped further ties with Carson, although it did honor its prior commitment in matching funds. The Register reporter, Aaron Calvin, was discovered to have made offensive tweets of his own in the past, and was let go by the Register. To be honest, he was scapegoated, as the Register has yet to own up to its own editorial mistakes on this story.
Which brings us to today. RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) has a 47 year history, but that may be at an end. I’ve ridden RAGBRAI, in whole or in part, each of the past 5 years. Today, the entire staff of RAGBRAI quit, citing differences with the Register over the handling of the Carson King affair. They have instead started a competing event, Iowa’s Ride, scheduled to occur at the same time as next year’s RAGBRAI. It’s impossible to know how this will yet sort itself out. There may be lawsuits and counter-lawsuits. But, one thing is clear; the future will be different than the past.
Who among my readers, say 30 and above, isn’t happy that social media and digital cameras weren’t widely available when you were 16 years old? I can’t even remember much of when I was 16, can you?
This is my first point, memory was fleeting “back in the day”. Sure, my mom had an incredible memory, which could generate personal guilt in a heartbeat; but, generally, most of what I did that was obnoxious either flittered way into the aether or became fodder for much-loved stories among families and friends.
That leads me to my second point, that our audiences were much smaller then. What I might have done at 16 might have been noticed by my family or friends, but not a worldwide audience.
What we have to contend with now, in an age of digital storage and a worldwide audience, are the enormous expansions of “memory” and “community”. What once was quickly forgotten and not widely known, can now be discoverable by anyone, and at any time.
The Des Moines Register, and other news organizations, have to realize the new world we’re in, and make appropriate adjustments. The old journalistic standards might no longer apply, and should be reconsidered. If the Des Moines Register had access to H.G. Wells’ time machine or Doctor Strange’s time stone, I like to imagine the following conversation might have taken place:
DMR: “Carson, we found some offensive tweets you made when you were 16 years old. We think you should delete them, because if we could find them, others will, too.”
Carson (and he’s said as much, already): “Those are bad, and I own up to them. They’re stupid and wrong, and I will delete them”.
DMR: “Great. We won’t report them, then. And we think you’re doing a wonderful thing by donating all these proceeds to the children’s hospital.”
Done. End of story. And, what a much better story it would have been!
Now, let’s return to Iowa Nice, and leave Iowa Ridiculous behind.