Marketing staff behind the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa resigned Tuesday in protest over being banned from publicly responding to the newspaper’s handling of its Carson King news coverage, jeopardizing the future of Iowa’s iconic bike ride that draws thousands of visitors from around the state, nation and world.
Longtime RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz said Tuesday he was emailed around Oct. 4 by his superiors at the Des Moines Register, which is part of Gannett/USA Today, and advised not to comment to those who contacting him because the sharp criticism the newspaper received over its profile of the impromptu fundraiser was starting to die down.
Instead, he said, he was encouraged to refer to a Register statement and run any comments first through a “New York PR Firm ... brought in to help manage the exploding crisis.”
While hoping the situation would change in the days ahead, being muzzled proved to be the final straw, Juskiewicz said in an interview.
RAGBRAI was facing “hundreds of questions” and threats of people planning to skip the annual ride, and he felt he needed to reinforce the autonomy of RAGBRAI or the ride would “wither and die,” he said.
“This was one incident, but it was a major one,” Juskiewicz told The Gazette. “My principles were called into question. If I bent over for this, what would be the next one? Where would this end?”
Juskiewicz and his staff of three others walked out Tuesday afternoon, offering a competing bike ride called “Iowa’s Ride” at the same time as the 49th installment of RAGBRAI, July 19-25. The domain for the IowasRide.com website was purchased Oct. 4, and the site is fleshed out with a logo, merchandise and plans for a route announcement in November.
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Juskiewicz, meanwhile, gave an exclusive interview to KCCI-TV that came out about the same time as the resignations, and he posted a lengthy, scathing Facebook post making his case against the Register.
Gannett in a statement vowed the RAGBRAI tradition would continue despite the staff departures.
“We’ll continue RAGBRAI’s long-standing tradition in 2020 with another great bicycle ride and strong partnerships with Iowa communities to raise money for good causes,” said Andy Yost, chief marketing officer of Gannett. “Our commitment remains to donate $50,000 to the University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital. We’re proud of the good RAGBRAI has done for the state since 1973.”
The Register has been the title sponsor of RAGBRAI since two staff columnists started the ride on a whim in 1973. The annual non-competitive ride averages 468 miles as it crosses the state from the western border to the eastern border the last full week of July, bringing a financial infusion to many rural communities, the state as a whole and several charities.
In a Register report, the company said Tuesday it “is exploring all legal options” and quoted John Karras, 89, one of the founders of RAGBRAI, calling Juskiewicz’ move “insane.”
Asked if his action could undo the ride that has grown into a cultural phenomenon and a statewide tourism blockbuster drawing upward of 10,000 riders a day, Juskiewicz, who relocated from Florida to take over RAGBRAI in 2003, said the ride was doomed anyway if it couldn’t stand independently.
The controversy stems from a jocular sign held up by Carson King behind an ESPN College GameDay’s crew on Sept. 14 in Ames for the Cy-Hawk football rivalry. It asked viewers to contribute to his Busch Light fund through his Venmo digital account.
When the request unexpectedly took off, King redirected donations to the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, generating over $3 million.
While working on a profile story of King, a Register reporter confronted the Iowa State University fan about racist tweets he had made years ago when he was a teenager. The same evening, Anheuser Busch said it was severing any future ties with King over the old tweets.
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The Register’s reporting prompted thousands to rail against the paper, demanding an apology, calling for a boycott and creating a hashtag for subscribers to cancel subscriptions. The story’s reporter no longer works for the Register.
Supporters of RAGBRAI were left stunned and concerned about the future of the ride after Tuesday’s resignations.
The Iowa Bicycle Coalition, which has been one of the primary beneficiaries of RAGBRAI, said in a statement it was “surprised.”
“We are extremely concerned because the iconic Iowa bicycle ride has been culturally and economically important for Iowa, especially in rural communities,” the organization said on Facebook. “We are extremely proud of the contributions RAGBRAI has made to Iowa since 1973 and we also acknowledge that Juskiewicz and his team are the heart and soul of the event.”
“It is our hope that a cross-state bike continues — whatever version that may be — in a fashion that elevates bicycling and promotes safety,” the group said.
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