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I Am Begging Conservatives to Understand Basic Journalism
The scandal around "doxxing" Libs of TikTok is another vortex of bad faith and abject stupidity.
It is very common for journalists to believe that our job is the center of the universe. The assumption, I think, stems from the practice’s best feature: that, when done well, it allows you to study and witness an enormous diversity of perspectives and experiences; you are permitted and encouraged to live many lives while speaking to people and writing down what they say. But I think a lot of us kid ourselves when we assume that means journalism is a universally understood profession, because time and time again we get very public reminders that basically no one, including many “journalists” have any fucking clue how it works.
Still—and this is probably the delusion talking—I wish this weren’t the case! Consider the recent case of Taylor Lorenz, an internet culture reporter for The Washington Post who possesses a rare and mystifying ability to make basically everyone involved functionally insane when discussing her work. Lorenz’s beat is, broadly, the creator economy and the ways that new social platforms are used in modern society, a wide-ranging field that allows her to (competently, in my opinion) investigate everything from sexual assault allegations in YouTube hype houses to the influence of conservative tech billionaires’ dark money in the influencer economy.
Lorenz’s most recent story revealed the identity of the person behind the wildly popular, obscenely bigoted “Libs of TikTok” account, a previously-anonymous person who, in short, has posted an avalanche of aggregated TikTok content of people—often teachers—who didn’t subscribe to traditional gender norms or sexuality binaries coupled with nebulous allegations of “grooming” and other conservative buzzwords. This is a good summation of the account’s content, from the Washington Post piece:
Libs of TikTok gained more prominence throughout the end of last year, cementing its spot in the right-wing media outrage cycle. Its attacks on the LGBTQ+ community also escalated. By January, Raichik’s page was leaning hard into “groomer” discourse, calling for any teacher who comes out as gay to their students to be “fired on the spot.”
Her anti-trans tweets went especially viral. She called on her followers to contact schools that were allowing “boys in the girls bathrooms” and pushed the false conspiracy theory that schools were installing litter boxes in bathrooms for children who identify as cats. She also purported that adults who teach children about LGBTQ+ identities are “abusive,” that being gender-nonconforming or an ally to the LGBTQ+ community is a “mental illness,” and referred to schools as “government run indoctrination camps” for the LGBTQ+ community.
As NBC disinformation reporter Ben Collins explained, Lorenz’s reporting involved a detailed, methodical process of confirming the influencer’s identity—a former Brooklyn realtor named Chaya Raichik—that included physically visiting Raichik’s house and knocking on the door.
The reaction to this story, and the reporting processes behind it, has been insane. There are few other words to describe it. Unhinged? Absurd? You can fill in an adjective there that describes behavior completely lacking rational thought and it will suffice. Conservatives, led by right-wing cheerleader Glenn Greenwald, have (once again) targeted Lorenz with an avalanche of online abuse, which led us once again to an endpoint perhaps best summarized by this clip of Tucker Carlson.
Look. For the purposes of this blog I am not going to get into all that. I want to address the very specific thing that much of the argument that ends at this point hinges on: that Lorenz broke some moral convent of privacy and decency by identifying Raichik. She did not. I am begging people to understand what journalism does, because this is not complicated.
First, what Lorenz did was identify a person in a position of power and influence. This is basically undisputable: Raichik’s account had 648,000 Twitter followers, her content was featured on-air by Laura Ingraham, Jesse Watters, and Tucker Carlson, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary credited her with informing her views on gender issues that were tied to Florida’s “don’t say gay” legislation. Lorenz’s piece methodically showed how Raichik built that power and influence through a trial-and-error content strategy common to viral influencers and which issues she posted about most frequently. Part of this included a “door knock,” which is, it has to be emphasized, an extremely common practice in journalism. There are, of course, right ways and wrong ways to go about it: Jesse Watters, for instance, made “ambush interviews” the cornerstone of his career while working as a producer for Bill O’Reilly. Lorenz didn’t film anyone, didn’t ambush anyone in public. She knocked on Raichik’s door to confirm her identity and give her a final opportunity to comment for the story.
She also, crucially, did not reveal the address, phone number, or any personal information about Raichik besides her name and publicly available business records. The right wing has screamed about doxxing, pointing out Lorenz’s recent media appearances where she describes threats to her own life and abuse as a result of people searching for and posting her personal information online. This is doxxing; reporting on the identity behind a powerful, influential right-wing fever machine is not.
My suspicion is that many of the biggest names and most cunning actors feeding this controversy know this. They know that Lorenz’s work was basic journalism to a T, which is something that they hate. They also know that because the general public is angry, suspicious, and stupid, it is incredibly easy to pass off a revelatory story like this one as an ethical affront, and paint a person in a position of power as the victim in a story because they were forced to take some personal responsibility for their actions. They can do this because nobody really understands how journalism works; because most people’s definition of the practice largely conforms with “when people write good things about people I like, and bad things about people I don’t like.” (This is not a uniquely right-wing trait, though it has been particularly weaponized by the right.) It’s an interesting quandary that doesn’t really have a solution, because the only way to solve it would be for the stupid and misinformed public to read and not reject all journalism and original reporting out of hand. Instead, they will have plenty of other things to read—all of which vilify all their favorite enemies. Didn’t you hear? Libs of Tiktok is now on Substack.