The Carson King incident represents an occurrence of a much larger issue within the practices of mainstream journalism and media.
Most of you know the story by now. The author of King’s profile, Aaron Calvin of the Des Moines Register, claims to have performed a routine social media background check on King; a routine background check that scoured seven years into the past when King was 16. Calvin found two tweets that King had posted that seem to have been quoting the comedy show Tosh.0. The content of the tweets themselves is certainly offensive, edgy comedy, as many Comedy Central and shows such as Netflix specials tend to be.
However, the content of King’s character is certainly not defined by the words. After all, Calvin had to go all the way back seven years to find two adolescent, joking tweets. There rests the problem of what seems to be mainstream journalism of the day. The intent of Calvin’s writing, signed off by the Des Moines Register’s editorial staff, was to stir controversy.
In an effort to throw water on the fire of negative reaction to the story, the Register’s executive director Carol Hunter said, in regard to the decision to include the tweets, “We thought we should be transparent about what we had found, but not highlight it at the top of the story or as a separate story. It was planned as a few paragraphs toward the bottom of the profile.”
Additionally, Hunter claimed of the importance of background checking individuals: “Some of you wonder why journalists think it’s necessary to look into someone’s past. It’s essential because the readers depend on us to tell a complete story. … The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King.” After all, claims Hunter, the editorial team only did what it perceived as “the public good.”
Calvin claimed the Register’s editors told him to ask King about the tweets, which of course, he did. Revealing King’s response to being confronted with the tweets, Calvin said, “He was deeply regretful, and I recognized that these were not representative artifacts of Carson.” There embodies the problem of the worst offenders of journalistic integrity and editorial discretion in media today, across any political or social line.
Calvin had to go back seven years to when King was 16 in order to find something “juicy,” while at the same time he claimed he knew King’s tweets were not representative of King’s character. Going back seven years on Twitter is no small rudimentary background check.
Clearly it was the intent of Calvin, and the Register’s editorial team, to dig up controversy. In ludicrous fashion, the Register dug up two seven-year-old joke Tweets from Tosh.0. Ultimately, to “tell a complete story” Hunter and the editorial team decided to include irrelevant artifacts of that dig into the story.
These artifacts do not tell an honest, complete story about King or his character, and this was done most likely because the author and editors knew the race angle of King’s old tweets would generate outrage, but more importantly, generate views translating to a positive financial bottom line. The outrage happened in the exact opposite way in which the Register had intended.
In the end, Calvin’s casting of the first stone exposed that he was not without social media sin and the Register's editors fired him. However bad one may think Calvin’s journalistic practices were, he did not deserve to be punished for his tweets or his profile on King either. Calvin is a scapegoat to the larger issue.
Much of this fiasco has to do with the editorial discretion of Carol Hunter and the Register. If background checks are important to know the whole story of a subject being interviewed, it seems amazing that the Register’s employment background checks to understand the “whole story” on their employees is vastly less invasive and wide reaching in scope.
Also amazing is the claim that there was no intention to disparage King. In today’s political climate especially being a part of the journalistic mainstream media, it is unfathomable that Hunter and the rest of the Register could not predict what the end result of including the tweets would be. It simply is not about telling the whole honest contextual story; it is about generating biting, controversial headlines.
This is a problem in mainstream media on all sides, and more concerning are the implications. No human being is perfect. We have all said and done things that we are not proud of, especially when we were younger. One of the great opportunities in life is the ability to grow and mature from life experience. But beware. Big brother surveillance is hardly what people should be worried about in the immediate term. Little brother is much closer to home, hiding in the bushes, waiting for the opportunity to be outraged.