The Des Moines Register, Background Information…and the Election of 1982?

The Des Moines Register, Background Information…and the Election of 1982?

Dredging up offensive tweets from an Iowa State student whose sign went viral after College Gameday, spawning a grassroots philanthropic drive for a children’s hospital, the Des Moines Register once again reminds us of its past and present issues with sensational background details.

It’s a story originally famous in social media and college football circles that gained enough traction that the Washington Post took notice: 24-year old Carson King of Altoona, Iowa, attended the Iowa-Iowa State football game on September 14, which attracted more attention than usual when ESPN’s popular Saturday morning, on-location show, College Gameday, chose to set up camp in Ames.

King’s sign: “Busch Light supply needs replenished”–along with his Venmo information–went viral, and hundreds of dollars flooded into his account. King announced that he would be donating those proceeds to the Iowa City Children’s Hospital, and the story got even bigger. Venmo and Anheuser-Busch–which makes Busch Light–pledged to match any funds raised, and the campaign grew into over a million-dollar fundraiser for the children’s hospital. King got his own face on a can on Busch Light, and the story received feel-good profile after feel-good profile from local and national media outlets.

Until the Des Moines Register started its profile of King, anyway.

In that article, which largely rehashes King’s unlikely position as the initiator of a grassroots, viral philanthropic campaign, author Aaron Calvin made a decision–one backed up by his editors–to include this passage:

A routine background check of King’s social media revealed two racist jokes, one comparing black mothers to gorillas and another making light of black people killed in the holocaust. The joke tweets date back to 2012, when King was a 16-year-old high school student.

When asked about the tweets, King was remorseful and thanked the Register for pointing them out, saying they made him “sick.” He has since deleted them.

Aaron Calvin, “Meet Carson King, the ‘Iowa Legend’ who’s raised more than $1 million for charity off of a sign asking for beer money,” Des Moines Register (online), September 24, 2019.

Making the story more awkward, enterprising social media sleuths dredged up homophobic statements and racist tweets related to Calvin’s own account, prompting him to issue an apology and delete the offending tweets. The Register is also investigating Calvin internally.


As an historian, not a journalist, the editorial standards that go into what to dredge up from a subject’s past, whether or not to inform the subject ahead of time, and how to publish that information go well beyond my pay grade. I included the above material more for edification than editorial commentary. What I do know, however, is that this kerfuffle over background information and image creation is in keeping with a longer string of instances–and one particularly bitter feud from Iowa’s political and journalistic history–which helped decide its 1982 gubernatorial election.

Long story longer: In 1982 five-term moderate Republican Gov. Robert Ray announced he would not seek another term. While the race to decide the Republican nominee cleared out rather quickly for Lieutenant Governor–and New Right conservative–Terry Branstad, the Democratic Party’s race was not nearly as cut-and-dry. The party’s 1978 nominee, Jerry Fitzgerald, kept his name in the running. Then-4th District Congressman Tom Harkin floated his name through 1981 before withdrawing to focus on his reelection and eventual 1984 Senate victory. And looming in the background were two major figures: Former Governor and U.S. Senator Harold Hughes, and former U.S. District Attorney and founder of the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus Roxanne Conlin.

Eventually the Democratic primary boiled down to three nominees: Fitzgerald and Conlin stayed the course, but after Harold Hughes–for myriad reasons, most publicly that he did not meet Iowa’s two-year residence requirement to run for governor–dropped out of the race, he was replaced by Iowa Democratic Party chairman Ed Campbell. While Conlin appealed to younger voters, particularly social liberals and feminists, she had also been vocally campaigning through 1981. Fitzgerald purported to represent trade unions and rural areas, while Campbell–Hughes’ effectively-appointed candidate, a former Republican like his former boss–appeal to party insiders and moderates.

That June, Conlin made history by becoming the first woman to win the nomination of a major party for governor (Iowa had a female Secretary of State from 1933-1938).

In their profile on Conlin and her victory, though, the Des Moines Register opted for…a decidedly different approach to Conlin’s win. In a front-page–though below-the-fold–piece, DMR political reporter David Yepsen wrote a story with the headline “Candidate Conlin learns to cope with image game.” Citing Conlin’s line “I get awfully tired of beige, brown, tan and gray,” Yepsen noted that Conlin was addressing “the behavior, grooming and dressing rules followed by the first woman to seek a major party nomination for governor of Iowa – rules that apply to all politicians but, sexist or not, especially to women.”

Already tiptoeing the lines of giving voice to the sexist critiques of Conlin’s candidacy, Yepsen continued that “image is part of the political game that the 37-year-old Conlin wants to win” and provided insights into how she downplayed her image (“Conlin employs the subdued facial makeup that sometimes doesn’t cover everything,” “the colorless, shapeless clothes and her recent move to a Margaret Thatcher hairdo,” and so-on).

Already controversial territory. And yet, Yepsen (or perhaps an editor) decided, it was important for the Register to delve into its press files and document–the day after her historic victory–the different hairstyles Conlin had worn over the last eleven years:

Screenshot of page 3A, Des Moines Register, June 9, 1982. Image taken from Newspapers.com, accessed September 25, 2019.

This inclusion still smarted with Conlin years later, as she recounted in Louise Noun’s history of Iowa feminists:

“I attribute what happened to a scurrilous press and to some particular people, David Yepsen, political reporter for the Des Moines Register, chief among them.”

Louise Noun, More Strong-Minded Women: Iowa Feminists Tell Their Stories (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1992) , 130. See also Suzanne O’Dea Schenken, Legislators and Politicians: Iowa’s Women Lawmakers (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995), 164.

Their feud was just beginning, but the hairstyle coverage set a tone for Conlin’s relationship with the press–and particularly Yepsen–throughout the campaign and for at least the next two decades.

In response to a campaign pledge, on July 1 Conlin released her tax returns from 1981, which revealed that despite a net worth of more than $2 million, in part owing to her husband’s job as a real estate broker and developer

Conlin, who has criticized tax shelters during her campaign, has used real estate tax shelters to protect some of her income taxes. The couple paid no state income tax in 1981 and only $2,995 in federal tax… Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad, Conlin’s Republican opponent, said he was ‘shocked’ by the statement Conlin released Thursday… “When I heard her talk about me and my party of privilege and our bankroll and our tax shelters [in a keynote speech to the Democratic state convention], I was surprised. But now I’m shocked that such a statement would come from a millionaire who didn’t pay any state income taxes last year.”

David Yepsen, “Worth $2.2 million, Conlin, husband paid no state income tax,” Des Moines Register, July 2, 1982, 1A.

The issue dogged Conlin throughout the campaign; Conlin, however, blamed a press unwilling to let the issue go and seeking to sensationalize the report. She believed that “from the day on which I realized my report…until the middle of October, no article about me appeared in the Des Moines Register that didn’t mention my taxes. Not one. I couldn’t kill this sucker with a pole. I couldn’t beat it to death with a club” (Noun, 130). Governor Ray called Conlin a “hypocrite.” Branstad continued his attacks.

While Conlin put out what she hoped would be “the definitive statement on that subject” by explaining her family’s tax situation, saying it was “because our investment in Iowa stopped paying off,” the issue remained (“Statement by Roxanne Conlin, July 14, 1982, 1. Conlin Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives, Box 62). But she clawed her back from a deep deficit to Branstad in the polls, particularly after the tax flap, through a more on-message campaign geared toward labor interests, women’s rights, and eventually an ambitious $300 million bonding plan which would stimulate the state’s economy through infrastructure spending, she fell short in November.

And that’s when the issue of the Register’s coverage of the Conlin campaign really took off.

During the race, two reporters with the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed decrying the Register’s coverage:

The press wanted to know more, of course. The Register and several smaller news organizations demanded that the Conlins disclose their income statesments and tax returns, which they filed jointly. The candidate refused and tried to cut off further debate on her personal finances. Friends of Mrs. Conlin say that her husband doesn’t want his business unraveled on the front page of the Register, nor does he want the names of his partners revealed. […]

When reporters unsuccessfully queried Mrs. Conlin about her financial situation 22 times during a 34-minute press conference, the Register’s story noted that she refused to answer “once every 90 seconds.” The Reigster warned in an editorial that “The Conlins’ personal tax status will color all debate during this campaign…” And it has. The prophecy has become self-fulfilling.

Ultimately, those reporters concluded:

Admittedly, Mrs. Conlin made a major blunder of considerable interest to the Register’s readers. Nonetheless one can argue that the paper’s relentless, prominent coverage of the tax dilemma was overdone. The paper’s coverage also displayed the extensive use of a troublesome technique that is by no means exclusive to the Register: Even its routine and presumably objective coverage of the story projected a tone of thinly veiled indignation, itself a form of editorializing. Mrs. Conlin’s chances of election were clearly hurt and, perhaps more important, the Register’s readers suffered. The paper turned the governor’s race into a single-issue campaign.”

Claudia Waterloo and Jane Juffer, “Register’s Reputation Is on the Line in Iowa,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 1982, 20.

The Yepsen-Conlin saga lasted into the 2000s. When Conlin considered a run for governor again in 1985–amid criticisms of Terry Branstad for shifting his income losses to farm losses to avoid paying as much in income tax, though never mind that here–Yepsen mentioned the flap, but noted that her allies believed she lost “because she paid no state income taxes and [emphasis added] ran a bad campaign” (DMR 5/13/85, 13A). When Conlin decided in January 1986 not to run for governor amid a supposedly-Democratic year during the Farm Crisis (State Senator Lowell Junkins ran and lost badly to Branstad), immediately following Conlin’s statement, Yepsen wrote, “Conlin lost the governorship to Republican Terry Branstad in 1982 after she revealed she paid no state income taxes. She admitted later that she mishandled the issue and that her campaign was disorganized” (DMR 1/30/86, 2A).

Conlin carried these slights with her for decades and beyond. First, her accounts to Noun and Schenken clearly placed blame on the Register and Yepsen in particular, arguing that they amplified critiques which traced back to her sex:

Something happened to me that had less to do with my economic situation than with my sex. One of the things I find significant is that no woman who approaches me on the street ever mentions my taxes. They say, “I love you, I voted for you, I worked for you, you lost because you are a woman.” That’s what every woman says. Men don’t. They don’t understand. They say, “Boy, that tax thing, that was terrible.” I say, “Yes it was.” It had virtually nothing to do with my loss, but it was terrible. It seems to me as though women understand that what happened was desperately unfair. Men, even men of good faith, don’t see it quite the same way.

Noun, More Strong-Minded Women, 130-131.

Taken in the light of the primary coverage on Conlin which focused–fairly or not–on her self-styled image, it is difficult not to think that coverage of the Conlin campaign emphasized her gender, whether in conscious or unconscious ways. Yepsen, for example, would probably never scour the Register for old photos of Terry Branstad and ask you to critique the shape of his face or his choices in facial hair:

We’ll chalk the January 1982 goatee to…bad ideas, I guess.

This issue went on, though, well into the 1990s. In September 1997 Conlin wrote an Opinion Page column, “Roxanne Conlin tells her side of the story,” that explicitly attacked Yepsen, by then editor of the Register‘s political section:

Register political editor David Yepsen continues to misrepresent the 1982 election and the role taxes played in it. In his semi-annual attack on me (“Candidate Finances likely Will Be Issue,” Aug. 31), he said that I lost because I paid no state income taxes. Of course I paid no state income taxes, because I owed no state income taxes. 1981 is the only year before or since that my husband James and I have had no state income-tax liability.

Roxanne Barton Conlin, “Roxanne Conlin tells her side of the story,” Des Moines Register, September 21, 1997, 1C.

She tied in Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe’s attempts during her 1984 U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Independent-Republican Rudy Boschwitz [she incorrectly identified him as Dave Durenberger both in the column and in Noun’s article], which the Minneapolis Star-Tribune dismissed as “nagging.” Gender, whether implicit or explicit, according to Conlin, played a role in newspaper coverage of her loss, and one editor’s ax to grind had resulted in 15 years of misinformation being spread about her.

Readers, if letters to the editor can be used as any sort of definitive historical statement [I tend to lean toward no, but your mileage may vary], appeared to back Conlin in the following Sunday’s paper:

Screenshot of letters to the editor, Des Moines Register, September 28, 1997, 6C. Screenshot taken from Newspapers.com, accessed September 25, 2019.

Yepsen, to his credit…

…refused to let it go. Eight years later, amid Women’s History Month, the longtime–and nationally-renowned!–political reporter and editor used his opinion page space to publish the column “Who sabotaged Conlin’s run for governor? She did.”

It’s Women’s History Month, a time for news roganizations to examine the successes, failures, and contributions of women in society. Invariably, that leads to the question of why Iowa has never elected a woman to the governorship, U.S. House or the U.S. Senate. Invariably, that leads to a discussion of why Roxanne Conlin lost the governorship in 1982. Register reporter Lynn Campbell reporterd Monday that COnlin said she was the victim of “deeply sexist” reporters.

Wrong.

Roxanne Conlin beat herself.

David Yepsen, “Who sabotaged Conlin’s run for governor? She did,” Des Moines Register, March 22, 2005, 9A.

Yepsen’s actual rehashing of the campaign is similar to what any historical treatment (including my own) would be: though he begins with the bone he’d clearly not put down in 23 years, the tax issue, he moves on, noting her political inexperience, “big city” Des Moines (don’t laugh) image, status as a “liberal”–particularly a feminist–and her “flawed campaign.” These are, as I take the time to note in my own dissertation, important considerations, and definitely parts adding up to why Conlin lost!

But on the issue of editorial responsibility, particularly in dredging up Conlin’s past–not only in money, but in imagery–Yepsen demurred responsibility:

Did journalists make mistakes in the 1982 campaign? You bet. The editors of this paper foolishly chose to illustrate a story about Conlin’s primary victory with a series of pictures showing her different hair-dos. That was wrong. (Somehow, the “good old days” at this paper weren’t always so great.)

The issue with “editors of this paper foolishly chose to illustrate a story about Conlin’s primary victory”? Let’s roll the tape:

Screenshot of Des Moines Register, June 9, 1982, 1A. Taken from Newspapers.com, accessed September 25, 2019.

I might not have a perfect understanding of how the Des Moines Register‘s editorial process, byline assignment, or story selection worked in June 1982. Perhaps this was an editor’s headline, grafted onto Yepsen’s story, and an editor’s “perusal of The Des Moines Reigster’s picture files,” as Yepsen notes before the jump to page 3A. But this focus on seemingly irrelevant past detail, Conlin continued (and might continue!) set the tone for coverage of Conlin’s campaign. It may have led reporters to exacerbate or return to issues of her tax filings for 1981. Even if it did not overtly affect the 1982 Iowa gubernatorial campaign, it certainly played an unstated role, and the rehashing of the issue in 1997 and 2005 shows that Iowans involved are not over it.


It’s not my job to adjudicate whether Aaron Calvin and the Des Moines Register were in the right or wrong when they decided to publish Carson King’s tweets. Certainly the court of public opinion will do more than one historian with a little-read blog.

But it informs broader understandings of how journalists choose to deploy and decide what makes relevant history. It affects contemporary coverage–and resultant discussions of race, class, gender, reconciliation, and so much more–but it also has larger ramifications for how we, as historians, reflect on events.

And in the case of the Des Moines Register, it’s hardly the first time questions of what’s necessary and unnecessary reporting have been asked.

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