Who's Afraid of Taylor Lorenz?
Mainstream journalists and the tech world fear her and smear her... but why?
Hello, dear readers.
Last week, Steven Perlberg published an article at Insider about a challenge facing The New York Times: staff retention. According to Perlberg’s report, the Times has been worried lately about losing top talent to places where journalists can make more money and have more autonomy. In it, he interviewed Taylor Lorenz, a reporter who recently jumped from the Times to a new gig at Washington Post about the issue. I’ve been a big fan of Lorenz’s work for a long time, and I was pretty excited to see what she had to say.
For those who aren’t familiar with her work, during her time at NYT, Lorenz wrote about things like the “Birds Aren’t Real” movement, covered OnlyFans’ brief plans to ban “sexually explicit content” on its platform, provided a behind-the-scenes look at the Biden administration’s efforts to fight vaccine misinformation with an “influencer army,” highlighted the rise of TikTok-based résumés, explored burnout within the world of online content creators, shared the bizarre story of “Adrian’s Kickback,” provided a look into why one of the richest men on the planet steals memes, helped explain the GameStop stock market chaos of 2021, and wrote about digital sleuths naming and shaming the people who stormed the Capitol.
If you want to understand the creator economy — and, if you’re at all interested in politics, culture, technology, business, or influence, you should want to understand the creator economy — Lorenz is the person you go to. But anyway, back to the interview…
"When you think about the future of media, it's much more distributed and about personalities," she told Perlberg. "Younger people recognize the power of having their own brand and audience, and the longer you stay at a job that restricts you from outside opportunities, the less relevant your brand becomes."
To anyone who pays attention to the world of media, this should be obvious. Call it “brand,” call it “reputation,” call it “personality,” call it whatever you want — it’s real and it’s important. The point Lorenz was making and Perlberg was highlighting was simple: the Times has been banking on its brand to be strong enough to retain employees, and that may not be enough anymore.
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Washington Post reporters Jacqueline Alemany, Greg Jaffe, and Josh Dawsey, along with New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Maggie Haberman, got in some jabs at Lorenz for referring to journalists’ “brands.” Jaffe took exception to the phrase “influencer journalist,” Mazzetti said the piece made him want to “dig a giant hole and crawl into it,” and Haberman, whose biggest recent story involved the former president’s toilet habits (which she chose not to report at the time, but rather, decided to save so she could sell her new book), mocked Lorenz for supposedly trying to “get more attention.”
And when Lorenz responded to Haberman by writing, “Maggie, the attention economy is my entire beat, it’s what I cover, and you’re certainly an expert at leveraging it yourself. I hope you can recognize why more workers at the NYT and elsewhere are seeking more ownership of their work, opportunities for career growth and fair pay,” Haberman dove head-first into another condescending attack.
For New York magazine, Shawn McCreesh wrote what can only be described as a sexist, infantilizing post about Lorenz with “gems” like “Today is Taylor Lorenz’s first day at the Washington Post, and she’s already doing, arguably, exactly what she was hired to do: She’s stirring up trouble on social media. ‘Oh my God, can you stand all the drama?’ she says, giggling on a phone call with me last night. In case you’ve been distracted by actually consequential world news…” and added references to war correspondents as a way to minimize her work and dismiss her concerns.
The next morning, Politico published a condescension-laden item about this exchange in its Playbook newsletter.
“Journalist heavyweights to Taylor Lorenz: Sit down,” reads the heading.
At the end of the piece, Politico writer Rachael Bade linked to a piece from the right-wing Washington Free Beacon that unintentionally highlighted another problem.
The Free Beacon, like a number of other conservative news outlets and opinionators, has taken it upon itself to frame Lorenz’s work as somehow creepy by nature. I’ll explain.
Setting aside the fact that this piece is framed as Lorenz “causing drama again” and misrepresenting what she actually said in the Insider interview, the article serves as an obvious attempt to further a baseless narrative that Lorenz is somehow creepy when it comes to children. The Free Beacon introduces her as “teen lifestyle and Chinese spyware reporter,” and later called her “the nation’s preeminent chronicler of tween memes … best known for attending an internet celeb’s 16th birthday party and for being one of the only adult journalists to cover the ‘TikTokalypse’ of July 2020.”
Past posts from the Free Beacon about Lorenz, published by the same writer,” have begun with the word “ALERT” in headlines. Here are a couple of lines from the Free Beacon’s post about Lorenz’s move to the Washington Post:
Perhaps the biggest factor in Lorenz's rise to internet stardom is her obsession with TikTok, the Chinese spyware app that uses advanced algorithms to promote unhealthy phone addictions among American teenagers. For example, she was one of the only adult journalists to cover the "TikTokalypse" of July 2020.
Lorenz has more than 500,000 followers on the spyware app. For the sake of comparison, Brooklyn Queen, the internet celeb whose 16th birthday Lorenz attended in 2021, has more than 5.5 million followers. Cybersecurity experts have warned that TikTok is a "magnet for pedophiles."
Calling TikTok, which has more than 1 billion monthly users, a “Chinese spyware app that uses advanced algorithms to promote unhealthy phone addictions among American teenagers,” is a clear bit of editorializing from the Free Beacon. “…app that uses advanced algorithms to promote…” could describe virtually any social media app. And while people have raised concerns about the app’s connections to China, calling it a “Chinese spyware app,” is a major stretch.
By adding the line about “cybersecurity experts” warning that “TikTok is a ‘magnet for pedophiles,’ immediately after noting Lorenz’s follower count on the app, the right-wing media outlet is making a pretty clear and baseless suggestion of some connection between the two. Not-so-subtly hinting that Lorenz is some sort of deviant is par for the course when it comes to right-wing media.
For instance, The Spectator began a 2020 article about Lorenz like this:
“To have a photographer come is overwhelming; a lot of kids don’t want anything to do with it, especially if their parents aren’t fully aware of what they are doing.”
No, that is not a quote from a child predator. It is from a New York Times reporter. But nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference.
Last March, during an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Federalist’s Sean Davis called Lorenz “the journalism equivalent of the creeper creeping by the schoolyard asking if they want any free attention in the New York Times.”
Just a few days ago, Harvard’s Technology and Social Change project’s Media Manipulation Casebook published a study titled, “What the harassment of journalist Taylor Lorenz can teach newsrooms.” It’s worth a read as it helps contextualize some of the insinuations made on the right as it concerns her work.
Case in point: In June 2021, Lorenz attended the 16th birthday party of a TikTok influencer whom she was profiling for The Times. The party was a big, public, red carpet event attended by industry executives, press, agents, parents and many other adults. A few days later, the Free Beacon, a right-wing outlet, published an article excoriating Lorenz’s presence at the party, writing that it was inappropriate for an “adult reporter” to have attended a child’s birthday party. This story led to more serious attacks on Lorenz, online and on TV, alleging that she was a predator, a creep, and insinuating that she was a pedophile.
The subhead on Free Beacon article was, “Raises serious concerns about ethics in teen journalism,” a reference to the GamerGate meme war from 2014, which used the phrase “it’s about ethics in gaming journalism” to justify a coordinated harassment campaign against women gaming journalists by united factions of the online far right. The Free Beacon’s piece was a wink and a nod to the fact that Lorenz’s harassment follows the same script -- and her harassers know it.
This narrative is a clear attempt to appeal to QAnon believers and those who have been exposed to growing concern about child abuse as a result of the Q phenomenon. The purpose of such dogwhistles is not just to ruin Lorenz’s reputation; it is a strategy for bringing new people into the harassment campaign, as concerns about child abuse are extremely mobilizing. It is also the kind of allegation that is extremely difficult to defend against, and which leaves an indelible reputational stain.
If mainstream journalists want to pick fights with Lorenz, that’s one thing. But the very least they can do is to not amplify right-wing attempts to baselessly brand her a pedophile.
As for why mainstream journalists go after her, I think a lot of it has to do with simply not understanding the current media landscape. Lorenz’s work focuses on the intersection of technology and culture, and I think that’s an area that a lot of people working in media simply do not understand. The way people brush off her work as being that of a “teen culture” reporter (whatever that’s supposed to mean) really illustrates just how out of touch they are with the power of social media platforms. Maybe they think that by sidelining her, by dragging her reputation (or, you know, brand) through the mud, they can stop places like TikTok and whatever comes after from having an influence on the world around us. Journalists see the creator economy, the attention economy, and see a threat. And maybe it is. But piling on one of the best journalists currently covering the issue won’t help them in the long run.
“I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” by Murder By Death