Letter to the editor: Aaron Calvin, the Des Moines Register and the vapidity of viral

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Aaron Calvin’s Nov. 4 editorial in Columbia Journalism Review

By Chad Cooper, Cedar Rapids

Submitted Monday, Nov. 4

Today, the Columbia Journalism Review published a piece by former Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin. Yes, that Aaron Calvin — the reporter who wrote the now-infamous profile of Iowa State/Venmo/Busch Light/Iowa Children’s Hospital celebrity Carson King; a profile that called attention to racist posts tweeted by King when he was in high school.

The fallout of that profile mostly landed on Calvin and the Register, culminating in Calvin’s firing after Twitter users shared several offensive tweets Calvin had posted when he was younger. The whole situation became a circular firing squad, and Calvin is now attempting to clear the air by purporting to explain what really happened. In Calvin’s view, he’s a scapegoat of a large media corporation willing to abandon good journalism in favor of community readership and revenue.

Before we go much further, let’s establish a few things: Carson King’s past tweets were racist. Aaron Calvin’s past tweets were offensive. The death threats against Aaron Calvin in the aftermath of his story are abhorrent.

Unfortunately in his situation, Calvin largely misinterprets the dynamic around the viral nature of the King story, the conglomeration of media and his firing. Since Calvin is still mostly self-interested in saving face, he misses or willingly obfuscates the larger point: Calvin was seemingly happy producing viral-searching, soft-touch stories until the subjective nature and vapid environment of that particular brand of reporting backfired on him. The majority of Calvin’s “professional accomplishments” at the Register involved feel-good features and trendy profiles. Calvin wasn’t a hard-hitting investigative journalist, and perhaps he was content with that fact. The problem is that it’s difficult to now cast stones at a glass house you once happily occupied.

Furthermore, Calvin probably owed his job at the Register to the conglomeration of media. The search for cheap labor and click-worthy articles often results in the hiring of young, viral-chasing writers. Before working at the Register, Calvin was employed by Buzzfeed, an outlet that made its name on click-bait and snack-size content. In the end, it appears that Calvin is the one who didn’t anticipate the full power of this landscape, as the frenzy of social media unearthed his past offensive tweets from the depths of the internet.

This is all to say I don’t disagree with Calvin’s concerns about the monopolization of media, but Calvin isn’t the face of that issue, at least not in the way he wants to be. Calvin wasn’t fired as a scapegoat to protect big media. If that were the case, the Register would have also fired the editor who sanctioned the publication of the story. Calvin was canned because his own past offensive posts made him a liability as a reporter in an industry that can easily replace him with another writer with eyes on the next viral story.

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  1. Granting someone anonymity to willfully misrepresent both Aaron Calvin and the reality of what happened at the Register is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in Little Village. An arts & culture mag trying to squeeze the remaining drops of web traffic from this dry lemon of a story is shameful, irresponsible, and outs LV as a site more concerned with their numbers than integrity. The fact I have to give my name to comment on this completely anonymous letter is insult to injury, but I’m happy to start the discussion with a rousing “what the hell is wrong with you?”

    1. Hi Josh. Like all letters, the author’s name has been included, under the image. We welcome letters to the editor with all perspectives on this and other issues; letters, including this one, are not solicited. You are also not required to enter your full/real name to comment on articles, if you so choose.

    2. Josh,

      I wrote the article. As referenced by the first reply to your comment, my name is listed at the top of the letter. In regard to your comment about misrepresentation and trying to squeeze this story of more juice, my letter is in direct response to a piece written by Calvin and published by the Columbia Journalism Review just two days ago. Calvin kept the story alive by writing that piece; I’m simply providing my own take on the matter. If the Columbia Journalism Review thought it appropriate to publish Calvin’s piece, it certainly seems Little Village is warranted in publishing my letter, if they choose. The King/Calvin/Register story has clearly prompted wider discourse about journalism and its relation to the viral nature of pop culture. If you have a differing opinion, cool, but you’ve made your own misrepresentations in the process. -Chad Cooper

      1. Chad,

        Little Village had no prior coverage of the King situation other than when Register employees left to form an offshoot of RAGBRAI – yours (and Emma’s) insinuation that it’d be germain to post your rant of a letter for anything other than web traffic is as laughable as it is journalistically bankrupt.

        Just because Aaron was culpable in a poor media landscape of puff pieces to get by doesn’t mean he isn’t entitled to criticize it. Neither do his past offensive tweets – for which he took responsibility and apologized. By going after him for his criticism, and again willfully misrepresenting him (and the point of his CJR piece – which was that Gannett and many news organizations can and regularly do act on popular demand at the expense of journalistic integrity), you’re really operating on the exact level you seem to criticize. Rocks and glass houses and all that. This letter is simply adding fuel to points that were intentionally misconstrued by rabid right wingers and other traffic seeking media to add to that feedback loop. You’re entitled to your take – it’s just a functionally misguided one that slanders a working journalist that most people in the state dislike.

        Emma, you ought to take a hard look at how LV engages with stories like this because this is both irresponsible and hacky. The idea that this letter is necessary to post after no original coverage, no fact seeking, no interviewing, no effort whatsoever to engage in the larger story in the first place is a bad joke and an insult to faithful LV readers.

        1. Josh,

          To put my letter in the same vein as the right-wing takes on this topic is wrong, as my piece isn’t about Carson King as martyr. My letter doesn’t criticize Calvin for publicizing King’s past tweets. My criticism is that Calvin is now presenting himself as a scapegoat and martyr for redeemable journalism. As I mentioned in the letter, I don’t disagree with Calvin’s view on media conglomeration and public outrage corrupting journalistic integrity. My point is that Calvin isn’t the face of that issue. Because of his past tweets, he can’t factually claim he was fired because he publicized King’s past tweets. Also, labeling this letter as slander is complete hyperbole. I’m addressing Calvin’s own arguments and simply stating that his attempt to frame his firing as emblematic of a larger issue is faulty in his case, as his past tweets make it impossible to objectively determine.

  2. Josh-

    Because this is an editorial section of LV, you could actually write your very own criticism of their publishing of this piece. That’s the beauty of the editorial section. Perhaps there’s been some misunderstanding here, but it seems like you believe that LV solicited Chad’s story. Chad publishes more editorials with his full name here than almost anybody else. I agree with some of his takes, and disagree with many. LV is acting with integrity by posting Chad’s opinion, just as they would be to post any of yours.

    It seems like in your first post you just made the honest mistake of missing the author’s name and were incensed by having to provide your own. That’s fine, but don’t try to disparage LV or Chad Cooper to save face for your mistake.

    For the record, I disagree with Chad’s opinion that Calvin wasn’t fired as a scapegoat. I think he was. But I also think that Calvin absolutely misjudged the reaction people would have to the inclusion of King’s tweets in his piece. I read the article where he brought them up. They read really out of place and completely disrupt the flow of the article. I don’t think he was trying to be a jerk by including them, but I do think he went about it in a really myopic and lazy way.

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