“Don’t do it; it will go on your permanent record.”
That’s what Officer Friendly used to say when he would visit our second-grade class at Bateman Elementary School in Galesburg, Ill.
The cop in his pressed blue uniform would tell of a boy our age who he arrested for stealing a Hershey bar.
Now that boy is all grown up, and he can’t find a job because he has an arrest on his “permanent record.” At least that was the story the officer would tell the youngsters sitting uncomfortably on the gym floor.
That was an early version of what I call the “Cancel Culture.”
Essentially, the message of this culture is the following: Make one mistake—even when you’re young—and society will never forgive you.
That’s one of the reasons that we now seal juvenile records. A stupid misdemeanor that you committed when you were a child or a teenager shouldn’t come back to haunt you.
However, now our permanent record isn’t just something stashed away in a courthouse or school district file cabinet.
Now, it is much more readily accessible and never can be expunged. It’s called the internet.
Everything that we have ever posted on social media, everything that has ever been posted about us, every database and news story ever written that has been recorded on the World Wide Web is there for perpetuity.
We were reminded of this in the fall with the case of Carson King, a 24-year-old Iowa security guard whose Busch Light sign on ESPN’s “College Game Day” show launched more than $2 million in donations to an Iowa children’s hospital.
It would seem like a nice feel-good story, where an ordinary young man jokingly holding up a “buy me beer sign” manages to turn it into a major fundraiser for the Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
But then, the Des Moines Register assigned a reporter to write a profile on Carson. The reporter found that eight years ago, when King was 16, he posted two racially insensitive jokes on his social media account.
The reporter asked King about the jokes. King was embarrassed, said he doesn’t hold those views and, much to his credit, apologized at a news conference.
Busch Light, which had pledged to match donations brought in by King, suddenly announced that it would end all business ties with him. The big losers, of course, are children in an Iowa cancer ward who will not benefit from potentially millions of dollars in additional donations.
The Register’s editor wrote, “The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King.”
If publishing something negative concerning what someone did as a sophomore in high school isn’t an effort to disparage someone, what is? And, how do readers benefit by the newspaper sharing this information?
Few people could withstand an exhaustive examination of everything they have said or done. The difference, of course, is our permanent record is now on the internet for all the world to see.
The problem here can be best boiled down to one word: sanctimony.
The Oxford Dictionary defines sanctimony this way: the action or practice of acting as if one were morally superior to other people.
It’s an affliction that denizens of newsrooms are prone to.
To quote the New Testament book of Matthew:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
Some readers investigated the social media accounts of Register reporter Aaron Calvin, who wrote the story on King, and found that he, too, had posted offensive remarks on social media.
According to a statement Calvin made to Buzzfeed, the paper responded by firing him.
Where does this end? We all have said things we wish we hadn’t or laughed at a joke that in hindsight really wasn’t appropriate.
What about the editors who gave the green light to publish the material on King? Should everything they have said since age 16 be put under a microscope and if it is found to be less than perfect, result in their firing, the way it did for Calvin?
Journalists can play a game of “gotcha journalism” and report on long-ago sins with a smug sense of entitlement. Or, we can humbly acknowledge that each of us has fallen short of the mark and decide judgment needs to be tempered with compassion.
I prefer the latter.
Editor’s note: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He can be contacted at email@example.com.