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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