It was also unsettling. I never had any illusions that this was my most important or best story (as the 574th commenter wrote on our Web site, “Shouldn’t we be focusing on trying to stop the oil spill?”). Everyone knows about stories that ‘go viral.’ There’s always a story, usually popping up the upper left hand corner of your Yahoo news feed, that you click on because you just can’t help it. Having one’s story go viral has become a huge barometer of success. When that can’t-help-it story is yours, the experience affords the opportunity to examine just what it is that that barometer, which is so seductive and mystifying to news organizations, actually measures. The story was fascinating in its own right, but its success also depended on the herding mentality and the Web’s tendency to legitimize commentary as news.
For us at the Voice, a question—one which many news organizations that break a story which generates buzz struggle to address—was how to maintain (and wrest back) control of the story, and the page views. Our paper was on a constant Lorenzana beat. I was assigned to cover straightforward news and developments in the case—I broke the news that her current employer, Chase, had threatened to fire her if she kept talking about the lawsuit—while our bloggers had lots of fun following the tabloid craze, spinning out new angles, and writing pieces with hilarious headlines like, ‘Which Debrahlee Lorenzana Facebook Group Is Right for You?”
There are certain stories that every news organization is expected to weigh in on. These are big breaking stories, or stories with widespread societal ramifications. For those kinds of stories, the normal bars of journalistic judgment—Should we run this? Is this relevant to our audience—are subsumed, presumably by a collective understanding of the story’s value. The publication of war documents on WikiLeaks, for example, is one such story. But Lorenzana? No one expected the media frenzy that followed—certainly not me. In the span of twenty-four hours, it had transformed from a very interesting feature to something like breaking news of national and even international import.
In one sense, that might seem overblown. In another sense, it’s absolutely fine: we too often forget that a simple story can be an access point for huge and deep questions. Lorenzana, as a friend pointed out to me, is the ultimate water cooler story. It struck a major chord with so many different kinds of people, and that in itself cannot and should not be discounted. Maybe the majority of people were engaging with it on a ‘that chick is hot’ or ‘that chick is slutty’ sort of level, but a lot more was at work here. It turned out that the story tugged at so many points of cultural fascination that once it got out there it was almost unstoppable.
For one, it’s about Citibank. (Never mind that this story is about a low-level banker and who worked far from the world of bonuses and exotic derivatives). Second, it took place in the news media capital of the world. (One gets the feeling that if the same thing had happened to a low-level banker at a Citibank branch in Birmingham, the story wouldn’t have managed to traverse state lines). Third, the nearly 600 comments on my story are a testament to the universality of an obsession with work attire—though men and women are obsessed in different ways (Which makes it even better water cooler fodder). And finally, yeah, Lorenzana is really hot, and the story belies the assumption that the kind of people everyone else is jealous of have things easy.
Then there are the pictures. Even though I’m the writer, I know that the pictures made the story sail around the world. As many readers have pointed out, the thrust of the photographs (Look at how sexy I am! Objectify me!) runs counter to the thrust of Lorenzana’s story (Don’t treat me differently cause I’m sexy! Don’t objectify me!). The pictures created a psychological puzzle; they unleashed contradictions in Lorenzana’s character. From the getgo, she was never a heroine, a universal victim, or proof of some wave of discrimination against attractive people, as subsequent news accounts painted her to be (When news goes viral, the amplification factor itself seems to suggest something like a trend). A few weeks into the story, a local paper uncovered a Discovery Channel video on plastic surgery, which featured a twenty-six-year-old Debrahlee Lorenzana, gushing about getting her second breast augmentation and wanting to transform herself into “tits on a stick.” The contradictions about Debrahlee—readily apparent from the first pictures—multiplied. Why would a woman fighting a lawsuit against oversexualized attention desire so much sexualized attention?