During the seven months I worked as a trending-news reporter for the Des Moines Register, it was my job to write about viral news in Iowa and to frame my stories in ways that would increase their viral potential.
My last story for the paper, a profile of local celebrity Carson King, was my most widely read—because it provoked a national controversy. The series of events it triggered also cost me my job.
The controversy, as it took shape in the media and on social platforms, had all the trappings to become its own viral story—it had a hero who prevails, a villain who’s taken down, and a satisfying ironic twist. The reality, of course, was much more complicated. What happened to me has opened my eyes to how viral stories so easily twist the truth into something unrecognizable, and how ill-equipped news organizations are to respond.
Prior to the profile’s publication, I had been celebrating my professional accomplishments. I’d recently written several popular stories, among them a feel-good news piece about King, a twenty-four-year-old Iowan who’d become famous after channeling a chance ESPN appearance into a wildly successful fundraiser for a children’s hospital. I followed the story closely as the week went on and it attracted regional, then national, attention.
When King announced that his fundraiser had crossed the million-dollar mark, I decided to write a longer profile of him. I drove out to his home in a suburb of Des Moines. I had been talking with King via Facebook Messenger, but this was my first time meeting him in person. He was humble, and struck me as a genuinely kind and well-meaning person.
As I began writing, an editor requested that I run a background check on King. This is standard practice at the Register, as it is for many newspapers, when reporting on public figures. I looked at King’s court records as well as his public social media, and found a few racist jokes he’d tweeted in high school. In context, I could see that these had been references to sketches by the comedian Daniel Tosh. I told my editor about the tweets and was asked to reach out to King for comment.
I believe this was the right thing to do. Performing background checks on public figures is part of a journalist’s responsibility. If I had found the tweets, others would, too. I approached King with an understanding that what you tweet in high school is not necessarily representative of your beliefs as an adult, and he duly apologized.
I included a brief mention of the offensive tweets and King’s apology toward the end of my profile. It was a small moment placed in context at the end of a positive story. The tweets were part of a narrative of growth, maturity, and compassion—not an accusatory, “gotcha” moment.
When I asked King about his tweets, I tried to communicate that I was not trying to bring him harm. It’s clear to me now, though, that he was worried about personal blowback. As is common in the world of celebrity PR, he moved to get ahead of the details that would be revealed in the profile.
The evening before the profile was scheduled to be published, King held a press conference to confess to the existence of his tweets and to make a public apology. In a statement given to local television news stations, he noted that a Register reporter had brought the tweets to his attention. I was not provided with this statement or informed that he was speaking to the press.
In his statement, King included a more recent tweet of his that denounced racism. I recognized this tweet when I read it later—I had sent it to him on Facebook Messenger, to show him that I believed the crude tweets I’d found were not fully representative of his beliefs.
I don’t believe that King set out to implicate me, but because he preempted my forthcoming profile, people believed that I intended to impugn his character. Immediately after he released his statement, angry messages began to come in to the Register’s Facebook page. The messages demanded that the identity of the journalist who had found King’s tweets be revealed, and threatened the reporter’s life and the lives of Register staff. The Register decided to publish my profile that night, and King tweeted that he bore the paper no ill will, but it was too late. The narrative that a Register reporter was trying to discredit Carson King had already been set in motion.
In the hours after King’s statement, people on Twitter found material that they used to discredit me, instead. They shared offensive tweets that I’d posted when I was younger, including statements that were meant sarcastically but that employed homophobic and misogynistic language and could be read as such if taken at face value. I also tweeted, verbatim, a Kanye West lyric that used the N-word.
Tweeting these things was a mistake, and I apologize for them. I would not tweet the same things now. Like many people as they mature, I’ve come to understand that such language can cause real harm, and I’ve learned to better represent my values.
At the request of an editor at the Register, I tweeted an apology: I had not “held myself to the same standard the Register held others.” But I immediately regretted the statement. They were words I did not believe—I was never in the business of holding others to any kind of a moral standard. As I told King, I don’t think it is fair to use someone’s old tweets to make blanket assaults on their character.
I haven’t spoken to King since our last interview, but the day after publication I received a message from his older brother Josh. “I had to deal with a 24-year-old young man last night that was bawling hysterically because of what happened,” he wrote on Facebook Messenger. “He truly is a good kid and he has defended everyone involved in this whole situation.”
Over the next several days, I was the subject of a maelstrom of misunderstanding, anger, and hatred. My phone was nearly unusable for forty-eight hours due to constant calls from unknown numbers. The days were fogged with an ambient cloud of vitriol coming from strangers, from local people I knew but had little contact with, and from people I hadn’t spoken to in years. I did receive many kind messages—but this was also unsettling. The more I heard from people who’d grown distant in my life, the more widespread I realized the story had become.
My Twitter and email were inundated with anger. I received death threats by text message and by Facebook Messenger. My family and loved ones, and other Register reporters, received threats and angry messages as well. Threats were received at the office, and the paper was forced to hire extra security.
The death threats were frightening. But even more hurtful were the attacks on my character and humanity. These were propelled both by ordinary readers seemingly ignorant of the facts and, more insidiously, by reactionary journalists and the outlets that published them, specifically right-wing demagogue Mike Cernovich, Breitbart, and Barstool Sports. Local television stations as well as national platforms such as CNN and the Washington Post helped to spread the false but palatable narrative established by these outlets—that I had sought to vilify King for his tweets. A statement given by the Register attempted to explain the situation but failed to correct the assumptions. Throughout, I was instructed not to comment or respond to requests from the press.
After two days of media furor, representatives from Gannett, the Register’s parent company, called me at the home of a friend, where I was staying out of fear for my safety. Gannett, they told me, had determined that my tweets had compromised my credibility as a reporter. The company gave me two options: quit the paper, or be fired with no severance. On the phone, in my friend’s bedroom, I chose to be fired. I then returned to the living room, where two police officers stood waiting. With the assistance of my partner, I walked the officers through the messages I’d received from strangers. Some threatened to kill me; others asked me to kill myself.
This marked the conclusion of my time as the trending-news reporter for the Des Moines Register.
THE DAYS BETWEEN King’s press conference and my firing were some of the worst of my life. I was made into a villain and a fool, a man who tried to “cancel” Carson King and in so doing got himself “canceled.” People resented what they perceived as a reporter’s making King a target of political correctness. King represented the foundations of Iowan identity and, more generally, Americanism. He was the young, white son of a police officer. He had an unassuming selflessness, he was a fan of college football, and he drank Busch Light.
The existence of King’s racist tweets complicated this simple portrait. But instead of attempting to understand the nuances of a man’s character within the complexities of the world, readers reacted by punishing the writer who made those complications visible.
There was never any attempt to “cancel” Carson King. In fact, his status as a folk hero has only grown. By the end of his fundraiser, he had brought in over $3 million. Though Anheuser-Busch withdrew its association with King and its donation of a year’s worth of beer, a man in Iowa donated it to King in the brewer’s stead. On September 28, Iowa’s governor established an official Carson King Day, proclaiming that “individuals like Carson King demonstrate how ‘Iowa Nice’ isn’t just a slogan, but our way of life.”
Meanwhile, I lost my job—work that I was good at and proud of. My family has deep roots in Iowa, and I grew up reading the Register. The writer Jesse Singal gleefully pointed out on Twitter the irony of the fact that I had shared Osita Nwanevu’s New Republic article on the fallacy of “cancel culture” before I was fired. But I still don’t believe in the boogeyman of cancel culture. I was not “canceled”; Gannett chose to fire me. That’s an important distinction.
I’m far from the first person to be doxxed or to endure an online mob. It’s a more common occurrence, and turns more quickly violent for women or writers of color. With the support of my partner and my friends and family, I was able to avoid collapsing beneath the weight of the great hatred directed toward me. Some of my former colleagues at the Register have reached out to communicate their support—off the record, of course—and that has strengthened my conviction that I reported the story as well as I could.
The specter of “cancel culture” is a concept most often invoked to protect those in power, often straight white men such as myself, from facing consequences for their actions, but I want no part in it. I’m not going to start a YouTube channel railing against the perceived dangers of PC culture. I believe I lost my job unfairly. At the same time, I firmly believe that people, especially those in power, should be held accountable for what they say and do.
GANNETT HAS SET a dangerous precedent: allowing editorial decisions to be made by public demand. Most of the reporters in the Register newsroom are, like me, in their twenties. They serve as cheap labor, filling the positions of older reporters who were laid off. They are there because they believe in the necessary work of local journalism, as I did and still do. They deserve better than this, as do their subscribers.
After King’s statement that Tuesday evening, I was not allowed to return to the Register office. In the roughly forty-eight hours that elapsed from that time to my firing, I had limited contact with my direct supervisors and a single conversation with Gannett HR, where I gave them a statement similar to what I’ve written here. The managerial process that resulted in my firing was completely opaque to me.
I wish Gannett would have taken into further consideration how I’d represented myself as an employee. But rather than trust the character I’d established in the newsroom and work with me to help address the anger, misunderstanding, and misinformation in the community, they vindicated bad-faith attacks and allowed disingenuous arguments to influence their decisions.
There was no union at the Register. Had I been a union member, I believe I would have been able to more effectively advocate for myself. The day I was fired, the Department of Justice approved a massive merger between Gannett and Gatehouse, forming the largest media corporation in the nation. The Gannett/Gatehouse merger will result in a historic monopoly over local news media and will likely prompt widespread layoffs. Earlier this month, the Arizona Republic, a Gannett-owned paper tired of enduring staff purges and fearful of what’s to come, voted to unionize despite heavy-handed attempts by Gannett to suppress their movement. I hope this signals better things to come.
Neither the Register nor Gannett was prepared for what virality truly meant, or for what the kind of story they had asked me to report truly looked like. They wanted the clicks. But they did not anticipate how powerful the narrative would be once wrested from their control and turned on them and their reporters. In the end, I believe I was scapegoated by a corporation trying to preserve its bottom line.
Nearly as quickly as the Carson King story made me into a villain, it is leaving me behind. A Register story about the end of King’s fundraiser published October 2—less than a week after I was fired—makes no mention of me, King’s tweets, or the torrential news cycle that followed. The story includes an interview with King, but he makes no comment on those events.