Introduction

The Des Moines Register is an award-winning Iowa newspaper, having received 16 Pulitzer Prizes for outstanding achievements and public service. At the time of its most recent acquisition by Gannette in 1985, it was second to the New York Times in the number of Pulitzer Prizes awarded. Because of this ongoing history of journalistic excellence, the public has high expectations for the Register. This page offers an account of how the Register handled an unfortunate incident of public protest over a profile story about Carson King published in September 2019.

This page isn’t specifically about Carson King. It’s about the protest of the Des Moines Register and what corrections were made in response. As with all the content on this website, feel free to use the comments section below to suggest additions, corrections, or changes. They will most likely be incorporated into the article to improve it.

The Carson King Fundraiser

In September of 2019, the Register received significant public criticism in response to a profile story about Carson King, an inspiring 24-year-old Iowa resident who raised about $3 million for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. What began as a public appeal for beer funds turned into a massive nation-wide fundraiser after King announced he would be using the funds ‘for the kids’ — #FTK and #ForTheKids became trending hashtags. Read more here.

Controversial Carson King Profile

The profile story and the turmoil it created will likely make its way into mass media and journalism text books. What makes the incident unique is that the story did not include any specific inaccuracies, but it was incomplete in a way that would lead readers to have a poor impression of King. It lacked important details that would have informed the readers in a more balanced way. In other words, it was correct, but wrong.

The story gave substantial coverage of a few minutes in King’s life from about 8 years ago when he was 16 – recounting some offensive tweets King posted, while largely ignoring most of the other 12.6 million minutes of King’s life. In other words, it seemed to be a story that attempted to sensationalize or give weight to something that was not representative of who Carson King is.

In a case of slander or defamation, an individual needs to demonstrate that they have a good public reputation, and that good public reputation was damaged, and injuries or losses resulted. It seemed like that might have been the outcome in this situation.

However, with Carson King, there was such a public backlash against the Des Moines Register, that the poor coverage ultimately resulted in a massive swell of public support, all the way up to the Governor of Iowa declaring September 28 to be Carson King Day.

Teachable Moment

The above factors make the incident worthy of examination and study – a teachable moment for journalists and also for readers in how we respond to the news.

Reflecting on this incident, journalists are compelled to examine how stories not only need to contain accurate facts, but how to best choose which facts to include, and how the aggregate of facts provided paint an overall picture of an organization, event, or person. The stories written will be judged not only on the facts provided, but on the accuracy and fairness of the overall message.

As news consumers, are we an accepting and forgiving society, believing that people are changing and hopefully evolving and growing toward becoming better people? Do we make an assessment of people based on their broader actions and contributions to society? Are people the sum of what they repeatedly do? Or, are we a critical society that judges people for their past mistakes – outing, shunning, shaming, and punishing people? With the Carson King incident, the more forgiving and hopeful mindset seemed to prevail.

Protests Went Too Far

The public protest over the profile about Carson King resulted in a boycott of the Des Moines Register. The journalist was fired, and because of death threats, had to leave his home. Certainly death threats don’t convey the ‘Iowa Nice’ tradition. In this regard, the actions of the protesters (some of them) went too far.

The termination of the journalist was partly due to some questionable social media posts that person had made, as well as the work done on the profile story. It’s also believed that public protests influenced the decision to let the journalist go.

The protests that were an effort to show support for King, only broadened public awareness about the controversial story. So, in a way, the protests were counter-productive. The Des Moines Register had published a lengthy apology, action plan for future change, and numerous other positive stories about Carson King. So, it really didn’t make sense to focus on one negative story and punish the Register for it.

Newspapers and journalists are essential elements of the free press that Democracies require to function. They are an important part of our national wellbeing and homeland security. Citizens must be accurately informed to engage in the self-governance that our country is founded upon. For this reason, the free press must not feel pressured, influenced, or threatened by powerful public figures, business leaders, politicians, corporations, or special interest groups.

When we disagree with a paper, we have the right to voice out own opinions – which are typically published in the newspaper we disagree with. Without the free press, we are all silenced.

Register Apology and Corrective Action

On 26 Sep 2019, the Des Moines Register published an apology, and action plan for avoiding similar problems in the future: “We hear you. You’re angry. Here’s what we are doing about it.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“The Des Moines Register staff has heard from hundreds of people in the past few days upset over our handling of a story on Carson King, the 24-year-old whose Busch Light sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” show launched more than a million dollars in donations to an Iowa children’s hospital. We’ve listened with an open mind to everyone, but especially Iowans, the people who are our neighbors, who care as much as we do about our state and everyone who lives here. And we hear you: You’re angry, you’re disappointed and you want us to understand that. I want to be as transparent as possible about what we did and why, answer the questions you’ve raised and tell you what we’ve learned so far and what we’ll try to do better.” [More…]

On 1 October 2019, the Des Moines Register published a very positive story about Carson King that is consistent with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism they are famous for: “As Carson King ends fundraiser with nearly $3 million, he reflects on new fame, the future.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“The Altoona resident became a sensation after cameras caught him holding a hand-drawn sign as he stood behind the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay” in Ames on Sept. 14. Drawn on the sign, in plain black marker: “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished,” and King’s Venmo handle. When the money poured in, far exceeding anything King had expected, he decided to donate the funds to the hospital. Busch Light and Venmo pledged to match any donations, and several Iowa businesses also donated, including Smokey Row Coffee Co. and an ice cream shop from Prairie City, where King grew up.” [More…]

The apology, action plan, and positive follow-up story about Carson King are examples of journalistic exceptionalism in a difficult situation. In addition, the bike ride organization founded by the Register (RAGBRAI) donated $50,000 toward the Carson King fundraiser.

Support Carson King and the Register

As Iowans, we can be thankful and grateful for Carson King and the Des Moines Register. You can support Carson King by following his future efforts to have a positive impact. You can support the Des Moines Register by subscribing. The digital edition of the paper is just 99 cents per month for the first three months and then about $8 per month thereafter. [Subscribe]

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Additional Commentary

What remains below are comments about social media, news reporting, and journalism which are mostly unrelated to Carson King or the fundraising story but are of interest for other reasons. So, if such topics don’t interest you, feel free to stop reading and find something more interesting. There is some repeating below of what has been already stated above.

LEARNING OF THE CARSON KING FUNDRAISER

Like other Iowa City residents, I’ve given on multiple occasions to the Children’s Hospital – at our local Costco and in grocery store checkout lines. I keep giving because it feels good to help great cause. Because I’d already given, and because I’d seen similar amazing stories of Go Fund Me and Kickstarter campaigns receiving amazing amounts of money, I’d been desensitized and the Carson King phenomenon just didn’t grab me at first.

When a public outcry arose from a controversial profile article about King, I felt compelled to learn more. After reaching a level of national exposure and awareness, when all eyes were on King, he was in a situation that could turn very bad very quickly. His moment of fame could turn into a lifetime of pain.

CARSON KING APOLOGY – SEP 24

By Tuesday, September 24, the main Carson King fundraising story was sidetracked. That evening, Carson gave a press conference in advance of a story the Des Moines Register planned to run about him. He was told by the reporter working on the story that some offensive racist tweets from about 8 years ago had been discovered that Carson had posted when he was 16. These weren’t just embarrassing tweets, but statements that if reported out of context could really harm his reputation and career opportunities. The reporter said they would likely include that information in the article about him. So, understandably, Carson wanted to have his statement to the media take the lead. The missing ‘context’ were the past 7 years, which included a statement against racism in 2016. The public and average reader wouldn’t know this.

In recent years we’ve had many high-profile politicians, actors, entertainment industry moguls, newscasters, sports figures, comedians, and others get accused of having said or done very racist or sexist things. These ‘leaders’ typically deny the accusations, or minimize them. They attack the messengers. They will make claims such as: “It wasn’t me. It was someone else in black face’ that just looked like me.” Some later come clean, admit what they did, and apologize. Others double-down. So, with this context, to have Carson King, as a young adult, take the lead, call for a press conference, tell the truth about his offensive tweets, and apologize, was unusual. So some people appreciated his honesty and courage.

THE PROFILE ARTICLE – SEP 25

By Wednesday, September 25, the Des Moines Register profile story was online and being widely and vigorously discussed. In reacting to the story, people mostly fell into two camps:

  1. Supporting Carson King. Many people were defending Carson King, with some calling for a boycott of the Des Moines Register, declaring that it was irresponsible, irrelevant, and hurtful to disclose something Carson posted to Twitter when he was a minor, which wasn’t representative of his true character as demonstrated in recent years years.
  2. Defending the Des Moines Register. People defending the Des Moines Register and the author of the story were saying that the public has a right to know as much about Carson King as possible, including things he did as a minor, since he might one day become a powerful person. Some of the emotion and momentum propelling these people was a reaction to overall attacks on the media and journalists in recent years. The writer of the Carson King story lost his job and had apparently begun receiving death threats, so people wanted to show support for the reporter – since some people believed he had done nothing wrong in simply reporting the truth and writing a story his editors approved.

CARSON KING SUPPORTERS RISING UP

My first reaction was to feel compassion for Carson King. Depending on the public response to the story about him, the fallout and harm could be irreparable. Apologies or retractions appearing days later could not correct for the initial wide reach of the first impression the story would make. So, I started posting links to the positive stories about what he’d done, without mentioning the controversy over his isolated tweets from 8 years ago.

The reaction of others was to immediately distance themselves from Carson King – without any further investigation into what happened – out of concern for how any association might impact them. People and companies deleted their Tweets about King. Product endorsements were canceled. It was like Ghost Protocol. Anheuser-Busch canceled a pending contract with King, which resulted in a boycott of all their products among Carson King supporters. The Anheuser-Busch action was reportedly the result of their own independent discovery of those offensive tweets.

Other individuals, companies, and organizations stepped forward to support Carson King, feeling that he’d done something really exceptional in raising millions for charity. The Governor of Iowa declared September 28 to be Carson King day. A brewery in Illinois announced a new beer in honor of Carson King.

So, in addition to the polarization of people regarding the Des Moines Register, there was a wider polarization as those near and far either supported King or distanced themselves from him, and of people who supported or boycotted various companies depending on their position.

THE RISK OF TRYING TO BE FIRST

In reporting on events or about people, journalists are often asked (or asking themselves) if they want to be first, or if they want to be right. Being the first one to break a story, or leading the news cycle, is sort of a badge of honor. It suggests you have the skills, insights, sources, and awareness to be closer to the news than others. You have good connections. You’re able to work under a deadline. You have guts to run with a story that in most cases hasn’t fully become fully understood. It’s like being first to market with an invention. There is recognition and some reward to being first with a story. Getting a story right, and being first, can get you a better paying job.

However, if in the rush to be first, one doesn’t end up being right, it can be an embarrassment for the paper or publication that runs the story. You can end up losing your job, even if your editors sign-off on a story. There needs to be a scapegoat to appease public pressure, and it’s usually the author of the story. The movie The Paper does a good job of exploring some of these themes. In addition to eroding public trust in the media, an incorrect story can harm people. In some cases, it can lead to a lawsuit if damages can be demonstrated.

BEING RIGHT, BUT STILL BEING WRONG

The controversial Carson King story wasn’t incorrect in the sense of publishing false information. It was incorrect because it wasn’t complete. Perhaps the reporter felt someone else would break the story if he didn’t get it published quickly.

Without any specific explanation, we’re left with unfounded speculation… By leveraging the national popularity of Carson King, the reporter could get some good exposure and recognition if his ‘Hometown Hero has a Dark Past‘ type of exposé could go viral. Yet, we don’t know of the writer’s motive. The situation was complicated when past racist and homophobic tweets posted by the journalist surfaced.

By very effectively ‘burying the lead’ of the story, in putting the controversial elements toward the end, the reporter and paper could easily protect themselves by saying they did King the courtesy of not leading with that or writing a story exclusively about it. They also included some mention of King’s apology. Yet it really wasn’t enough to provide balance. Readers would get to the end of the article and remember the negative conclusion.

Missing from the profile story was this statement made by King in 2016 about racism: “Until we as a people learn that racism and hate are learned behaviors, we won’t get rid of it. Tolerance towards others is the first step.”

That statement was a post by King on July 8, 2016 and was repeated again well before the Register piece was published. In other words, it appeared that accidentally, carelessly, or intentionally, that statement was left out of the Register profile piece. At present, the profile piece remains uncorrected. However, on Sep 26, the Des Moines Register issued an apology, “We hear you. You’re angry. Here’s what we are doing about it.

In the absence of any racist tweets over a 7 year period from 2012 to 2019, and with no prior examples of racist comments, most writers would feel the isolated incident was not newsworthy or representative of the subject of their profile piece. Including what turned out to be an irrelevant piece of information, brought it to a level that suggested it was relevant and reflected an important aspect of King’s life or character. So, this was the problem, and this is what started the firestorm, beginning with King’s press conference made the day before as a result of the article before it went public.

In addition to leaving out important information, the article seemed to be rushed in other ways. In a 7:38 am version of the story, later updated on 9:48, the word money was spelled as “mone” and remains so. This is the kind of error that a spell check would find, and anyone reading the article would notice. So, this suggests that the story was rushed and not reviewed well.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

What can we learn from the controversial profile article and aftermath.

If you’re a reporter writing a profile story about someone. Think hard before you publish something that could be permanently damaging to someone, especially if there is no public need for that information. Isolated incidents don’t define who someone is. If you’re a newspaper or publisher, don’t rush to release a story until it’s sufficiently reviewed and more facts are known. These seem like common sense suggestions, but apparently they aren’t common.

If you’re a Carson King supporter, don’t engage in sending death threats to the reporter of his profile piece. That just makes King look like his friends or supporters are living the thug life. The reporter made a mistake, seemingly without any intended malice. People make mistakes. As the Governor of Iowa said about Carson King, “You can make a mistake in your life, and still go on to do amazing things.” Similarly, a boycott of the Des Moines Register punishes everyone at the paper for a one-time mistake made by one or a few people. People and organizations shouldn’t be defined by, and punished for, things they aren’t repeatedly doing or things that aren’t really representative of them as a whole. A better use of time and energy would be to help Carson King launch a non-profit organization or business that would help him continue to do good works.

We need to foster an environment where a free press and the journalists who serve us, can report without fear of persecution. If a powerful politician is corrupt and serving special interests, we need to know about that. If a local business is dumping in the river and contaminating our drinking water, we should know. If a company is selling products that harm people, the public should know. These things won’t get reported if people are threatened when doing their jobs. There needs to be a measure of forgiveness when mistakes are made.

Further Reading

Here are some of the articles covering the Carson King story. These are listed in chronological order with the most recent at top.

On 1 October 2019, the Des Moines Register published a very positive story about Carson King that is consistent with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism they are famous for: “As Carson King ends fundraiser with nearly $3 million, he reflects on new fame, the future.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“The Altoona resident became a sensation after cameras caught him holding a hand-drawn sign as he stood behind the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay” in Ames on Sept. 14. Drawn on the sign, in plain black marker: “Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished,” and King’s Venmo handle. When the money poured in, far exceeding anything King had expected, he decided to donate the funds to the hospital. Busch Light and Venmo pledged to match any donations, and several Iowa businesses also donated, including Smokey Row Coffee Co. and an ice cream shop from Prairie City, where King grew up.” [More…]

More…

A timeline of stories are provided below.

  • 28 Sep 2019 – [Source] The Gazette article by Vanessa Miller. “Companies grapple with weight of social media in the age of Carson King.” Excerpt: “The virtual world — and the way people present themselves there — has infiltrated a wide swath of today’s physical world including home life, high school hallways, collegiate admissions, the workforce, romantic pursuits and even immigration.”
  • 26 Sep 2019 at 9:16 PM – [Source] Des Moines Register apology to Iowans. “We hear you. You’re angry. Here’s what we are doing about it.” Excerpt: “The Des Moines Register staff has heard from hundreds of people in the past few days upset over our handling of a story on Carson King, the 24-year-old whose Busch Light sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” show launched more than a million dollars in donations to an Iowa children’s hospital. We’ve listened with an open mind to everyone, but especially Iowans, the people who are our neighbors, who care as much as we do about our state and everyone who lives here. And we hear you: You’re angry, you’re disappointed and you want us to understand that. I want to be as transparent as possible about what we did and why, answer the questions you’ve raised and tell you what we’ve learned so far and what we’ll try to do better.”
  • 25 Sep 2019 at 4:43 PM – [Source] Des Moines Register article by Kelsey Kremer. Excerpt: “Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation on Sept. 25 making Sep. 28 Carson King Day in Iowa in honor of his efforts to raise money for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.”
  • 25 Sep 2019 at 5:30 PM – [Source] Des Moines Register article by Aaron Calvin. “Meet Carson King, the ‘Iowa Legend’ who’s raised more than $1 million for charity off of a sign asking for beer money.” Excerpt: “…the money began to pour into his Venmo account. When it reached $600, he called his family and told them he wouldn’t use the haul for beer, but would rather donate it to the children’s hospital in Iowa City.”
  • 25 Sep 2019 at 11:11 AM – [Source] Des Moines Register article by Carol Hunter. Excerpt: “…the decision about how to use this information was preempted when King held a news conference to discuss his tweets and express his remorse. The news conference was covered by local television stations, which first reported on the racist posts and King’s remorse. After those stories aired, Busch Light’s parent company announced it would honor its pledge to the children’s hospital but would sever future ties with King. That happened before the Register published its profile of King, which was still in the editing process.”
  • 25 Sep 2019 at 9:46 AM – [Source] Des Moines Register article by Aaron Calvin. Excerpt: “By Monday afternoon, local and national media started picking up the tale. On Tuesday, Busch Light and Venmo, the two brands that had appeared on King’s sign, both pledged to match whatever money King was able to raise.”
  • 24 Sep 2019 at 9:49 PM – [Source] Des Moines Register article by Aaron Calvin. Excerpt: “The 24-year-old Iowan who held up a sign asking for Busch Light money at the ‘College GameDay’ show at the Cy-Hawk matchup — and has since raised over $1 million for charity with the help of other corporate donors — will now attend a football game at the University of Iowa after being given tickets. Carson King received two tickets to Iowa’s football game against Middle Tennessee State University at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday.”
  • 24 Sep 2019 at 7:51 PM – [Source] WHOTV article by staff writer. “Carson King Apologizes After ‘Hurtful and Embarrassing’ Tweet Surfaces.” Excerpt: “Carson King, who has helped raise over $1 million for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, has apologized after a controversial tweet of his from 2011 was discovered. King said a reporter for the Des Moines Register first called attention to the tweet, which referenced a racially-charged segment on the television show Tosh.0. King, who was 16 years old at the time, called the tweet “hurtful and embarrassing.” He said he doesn’t want it to take away from all the good the donations can do for the kids at the children’s hospital. King held a press conference Tuesday night to address the tweet.”
  • 24 Sep 2019 at 7:10 PM – [Source] Twitter coverage of Carson King press conference. Excerpt: “Carson King just finished up addressing the media after a racially charged tweet of his from 2011 surfaced.”
  • 24 Sep 2019 – [Source] A “Thank You” to Carson King and all who are thinking of UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Excerpt: ” ‘Thank you.’ Two words, eight letters. A small phrase with such an enormous meaning. They are words we say every day at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital as we see the incredible impact donors have on our patients and their families. Today we’re sending an extra ‘thank you’ to Carson King, a 24-year-old Iowa State fan from Altoona, Iowa, and to the thousands of contributors working through him to continue to make that impact on our patients’ lives.”

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Note: I plan to revise this document, making corrections and changes based on reader feedback. Feel free to leave a comment below. Your suggestions will most likely be included in the article above. Thanks.