Taylor Lorenz's Only Sin Was Being Assertive
A sorry fate may yet await Lorenz as institutions have plenty to gain from defanging their most-outspoken.
There aren’t many journalists in the industry quite revered and reviled at the same time as the New York Times’ Taylor Lorenz–she’s a target of ridicule by business community members who have a strong case of unwarranted techno-optimism, but the surrounding media ecosystem holds her in high regard since she broke coverage of the influencer economy out of its infantilizing tone, a holdover from misconceptions perpetuated by the media’s old guard who don’t see the influencer space—despite its hefty commercial presence—as anything truly worthy of consideration.
That much bears out in new reporting that suggests Lorenz’s relationship with the paper is becoming tentative at best. Following the sudden departure of the Styles section editor Choire Sicha from the paper, the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani revealed dissatisfaction from executives on how Lorenz and other high-profile reporters of the section were handled, seemingly with little involvement from Sicha in their portrayal of the paper’s public image on the pages of social media. The report paints the picture of a Lorenz perceived by NYT management as a dog that needs to be kept on a leash, further accentuated by an internal push to basically have her media-trained by none other than Maggie Haberman—notorious for riling up former American president Donald Trump on several occasions—an advance that Lorenz promptly rejected.
The struggle many news outlets have with keeping the profiles of their star journalists in check is an old one, but it’s something they’ve particularly had issue with when it doesn’t conform their conception of what a star journalist has traditionally been. In that vein, the comparison to a Ronan Farrow or Michael Lewis is naturally elicited–but the issue isn’t strictly that Lorenz is putting the livelihoods of notable business and political actors in jeopardy. Though uncharitable coverage of tech startup culture comes in pretty close, it’s clear that the dispute is over Lorenz’s ability to color her own output for the paper—one that is ostensibly neutral—through the searing cynicism that comes across clearly in her commentary on tech and its neighboring ecosystems on social media–she’s thoroughly unconvinced that they could bring much of worth now that their paragons are the subject of constant ridicule by America’s foremost legislative body.
It’s no secret that I’ve been quite critical of tech companies on this blog already, but the impulse to extend Lorenz solidarity doesn’t come from our shared views on a morally-defunct, wretched and exploitative industry–it’s more so about acknowledging the tricky dynamics at play that come from being such a notorious face of a world-class media outlet, one that has repeatedly come under assault from those who don’t share much common ideological ground. Even more puzzling has been the involvement of media rabble-rousers like Glenn Greenwald, who in a desperate attempt to garner attention further fan the flames of culture war, a conflict many had come to see themselves on the other side of as Lorenz was preemptively declared a wokelet, her work’s worth reduced as she continues to speak out on political issues from a leftist perspective much to her detractors’ chagrin.
Beyond the troubling implications of principally declaring anyone outside of the political center a propagandist unfit for the work of journalism—a field that for much of its history was a crucial actor in steering political change—there’s the distinct feeling that those who decry Lorenz’s presence at the NYT are merely dismayed at the idea of a high-profile journalist commandeering attention in a way that doesn’t serve their own bottom-lines. Sure, Lorenz could’ve spent the bulk of her career writing out glorified podcast transcripts and regurgitating the drivel of tech investors, but she chose to take a critical eye towards what was seen as automatically deserving of awe and wonder. Beneath the colorful UIs and pleasant front-facing experiences of so much of what powers our daily lives through technology, there’s a rotten core beneath, and anyone with a cursory interest in the tech beat would be remiss to ignore it if only to stroke the fragile egos of affection-hungry venture capitalists.
Business conflicts aside, the unspoken hostility between the NYT’s internal management structure and the reporter that brought much legitimacy to their influencer coverage is well-worth highlighting–to effectively report on those who command most of our attention, one must have plenty of their own, and the NYT would be fundamentally misunderstanding the requirements of the job if a reporter “getting too big on social media” was enough to give them pause. In an era where columnists and staff reporters have taken flight towards Substack—a space that affords them much liberty to explore their own journalistic impulses with naught to fear from overzealous editors—any media organization would be doing itself a huge disservice if it sought to divorce the spoils of what a talented reporter brings them from the reputation of the outlet itself.
Some might view social media’s involvement in the machinations of media as a net negative, but it’s also given a path to someone like Lorenz to not be bound by institutional obligations if and when she decides to bid the antiquated machine of legacy media farewell. There’s even an argument to be made for her ability to monetize more of her presence as the NYT would no longer hold her any pesky contractual obligations–sure the outcomes of going independent are hard to predict, but in the case of Lorenz, there’s plenty of reason to believe it would be successful.
What the future holds for journalists still held under immense amounts of pressure from having to balance an orderly demeanor for their outlets and an otherwise explosive one on social media is uncertain, even if it seems like there would’ve been time to have already figured these tensions out. Still as someone who has long relied on social media to keep some semblance of relevance in a space that’s highly-competitive—becoming more so by the day—I can only muster empathy for Lorenz–what she does is far from easy, and to see her be given so much flak for so little, it says a lot more about her critics than it ever did about her integrity and potency as a quality journalist willing to speak her mind out, unfazed by fear of the powerful’s reprimand.