Request for beer creates firestorm

No good deed goes unpunished.

It’s an old saying, but it took on new life in Iowa recently when a guy seeking a few bucks for beer unwittingly created a social media storm that made him famous and infamous, dragged major corporations into it and cost a Des Moines Register reporter his job. On the plus side, it has raised more than $3 million for a children’s hospital and made the 24-year-old man a hero to many.

It started on Sept. 14 when Carson King found himself short of money but thirsty for a Busch Light beer. He held up a handmade sign that was shown on ESPN’s “College GameDay” show, which was in Ames for the University of Iowa-Iowa State University football game. King hoped to collect enough cash to buy a few cold ones, but instead, football fans sent in $600.

He was surprised and said he only wanted a case of beer. The rest, King said, would be donated to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Nice story. But it didn’t end there. He tweeted out his story, and others, including his proud mother, posted it across social media. Radio stations and other media picked it up and soon, Carson King had gone viral. That would be very good for kids who need support and very bad for a reporter who decided to dig into King’s social media history.

As more money poured in, Anheuser-Busch and Venmo, the app that King used to collect funds, jumped on board this social media rocket. They vowed to match all donations and the brewery said it would send King a truckload of beer — with cans that bore his face and name.

Happy story, right? Not so fast.

A Des Moines Register reporter found deeply offensive racist tweets that King had posted when he was 16. He told King, who decided to get out in front of the story and called a news conference as the reporter and editors were still working on the story. To his credit, King apologized, thanked the reporter, Aaron Calvin, for bringing the tweets to his attention and said he had deleted them. But the reaction was swift, as Anheuser-Busch cut ties to King, although it said it would honor its financial pledges to the hospital.

“I am so embarrassed and stunned to reflect on what I thought was funny when I was 16 years old. I want to sincerely apologize,” King said.

“Thankfully, high school kids grow up and hopefully become responsible and caring adults. I think my feelings are better summed up by a post from just 3 years ago: ‘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.’”

So, happy ending after all, right? Nope.

When The Register’s story was posted, the racist tweets were mentioned low in the report. Still, many readers were outraged that the newspaper had dug up old posts from a teenager and were besmirching the image of a likable guy who was raising money for sick kids. Then, it was discovered that Calvin had a history of offensive and insensitive social media posts. Oops.

The tables had turned and the newspaper found itself with angry readers and a self-inflicted wound. Calvin was quickly fired, hoisted on his own petard, as it were. He claims right-wing ideologues targeted him.

“This event basically set my entire life on fire,” Calvin said.

King has emerged a hero to many. Gov. Kim Reynolds brought him to the Capitol to honor him and pose for selfies. King was hailed at the Sept. 28 Iowa football game, where he led the Iowa Wave. He was the guest of honor at a concert Monday night as six bands played to raise money for the hospital. He has a lot of friends who would like to buy him a beer.

We hope Calvin gets another chance to report and write again. We also hope he understands that not every single statement, every social media post, accurately reflects the views of a person. We all have said things we regret, and hope they are not brought up, especially when we are trying to do the right thing.

So what lessons, if any, were learned from this incident?

One, if you want a beer, just ask. A lot of people will buy you one. Two, folks like to join a good cause and help people, especially kids in need. Three, some media outlets need to reconsider what they report and publish. News judgment is as important as digging into backgrounds.

And most importantly, be aware that everything published on Twitter, Facebook and every other social media platform may live forever, and may return to surprise and harm you.

Think first. Don’t say or type something that doesn’t reflect who you are or your views.

You might end up in a firestorm.