In the thousand years since Donald Trump sailed down an escalator and crash-landed with a wet thump in the Oval Office, a lot of Americans have changed, for good or ill. Many of us are more political or more cynical, impassioned or deflated, hopeful or entirely gutted. The time before this presidency can seem impossibly distant.
But Trump has also been, in his own malformed way, a career-maker for some of his critics: his disastrous ascension has lifted their boats, making a few Resistance figures famous in their own right. (Take, for instance, a recent New York cover story on socialism, which made special mention of a few supposed stars of the movement (as well as some of my coworkers). Most of the main characters are people who are more Twitter micro-celebrity than organizer, but it’s undeniable that their tendency to criticize Trump online has made them much more well-known than they’d otherwise be.)
Among the stars of the Resistancephere is a woman named Lauren Duca, whose prominence rose virtually overnight in December 2016 after writing a fiery essay for Teen Vogue titled “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America.” Duca was, in fact, one of the very first people to go viral on Twitter after the election, and she exemplifies the way the social platform can elevate nominally involved people to pundit status, virtually overnight.
For someone who was just 25 years old at the time, it was a fast and impressive ascent, and Duca’s star has continued to burn brightly. She’s no longer at Teen Vogue, but has contributed to the New Yorker and the New York Times, as well as Out and The Nation. She’s been feted as a politics expert at places like the University of Delaware, and will be a visiting scholar at New York University this summer, teaching a course titled “The Feminist Journalist.” She was reportedly drafted as an editorial contributor at MTV in December, though she hasn’t written for them since that announcement, and it’s unclear if she’s still in that role. (MTV did not respond to a request for comment.) She participated this summer in a 10-city tour of prominent pro-choice feminists, Rise Up for Roe, which protested the appointment of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and was co-organized by Demand Justice, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood.
Duca’s real power, though, is on Twitter, where she has, at present, more than 435,000 followers who come for her mix of feminism, centrist political analysis, and sassy clapbacks at her haters. She seems to have particularly ardent fans among young women, and it’s that audience that she frequently encourages to become more empowered, more politically engaged, and more outspoken.
It’s an admirable mission. But her growing platform has also created consternation among her former colleagues at Huffington Post, a workplace Duca left in 2015 after being accused of sending cruel and harassing anonymous emails to coworkers. (Huffington Post has since rebranded as HuffPost, but was called Huffington Post at the time, so we’re referring to it as such throughout this story.)
(Duca repeatedly viewed, but did not respond to, six emails I sent her requesting comment over a period of nearly two months. Duca has an auto-reply that reads, in part, “Due to the absurd volume of emails I receive here, I am not able to respond to everything, and I also miss a lot of stuff. I will try to get back to you, but, if not: good vibes only!!” However, I know she opened them because for professional emails, I use a tracking service, which shows how often they were opened; the service showed that Duca viewed every email multiple times from her iPhone, her Gmail account, and another mail client.)
According to accounts we’ve heard from 10 of her former co-workers, all of whom insisted on anonymity because they continue to work in media and wanted to be able to freely discuss a sensitive work situation and because they were concerned about professional repercussions, Duca left the company in November 2015. Her departure came after an internal investigation found reason to believe that she’d sent several inappropriate emails to and about her coworkers—and herself—from what was meant to be an anonymous account, many said to be in the space of one disastrous night in October. One email apparently referred to a male writer as a “bald freak.” Duca was referred to as a “feminazi.” The very first—and most damaging—referred to a Huffington Post writer as an “overweight fake blonde.”
One person who was specifically targeted by the emails sent that night in October confirms that she saw the one about her, was hurt by it, and that the hurt lingers.
This person has also, of course, noted Duca’s rise to viral feminist Resistance fame, and that stings too. Several of Duca’s former coworkers have come to see her newfound stardom as a referendum on the nature of viral fame itself, as well as how someone aligning themselves with the movements du jour—mainstream, marketable feminism; the more salient parts of the Resistance—can escape any real scrutiny, even as many people in media have been aware of the allegations concerning her time at Huffington Post.
“It’s infuriating, is the best way to say it,” the former coworker told me in the summer of 2017. “She’s such a hypocrite. I think that’s the biggest thing. She’s a huge hypocrite.”
True overnight fame rarely exists anymore unless you murder a lot of people with a high-powered weapon or go briefly viral while drinking wine out of a Pringles can in a Walmart parking lot. But Duca achieved something like it, and the nature of her sort of celebrity—her particular path to becoming a prominent public figure, and the norms and ideas she’s chosen to critique—is key to why her alleged conduct at Huffington Post has remained such a sore spot for her colleagues.
Before 2016, Duca had been mainly covering news in the fashion, style and celebrity arenas. She wrote an energetic newsletter for the Huffington Post called Middlebrow, which focused on pop culture and society more broadly, and often demonstrated a strong interest in feminist politics. (Sometimes, the two overlapped.)
Like many people, then, the Trump era galvanized and in some ways changed her, but it wasn’t the viral gaslighting essay alone that caught the nation’s attention. In the days that followed, Duca also went on Tucker Carlson’s show and ably sparred with him, calling him a “partisan hack” and smoothly managing to avoid Carlson’s many crudely sexist jabs.
“You should stick to the thigh-high boots,” Carlson scoffed, as a way of pointing out that Duca had previously mostly written about lighter topics. “You’re better at that.”
With a steady hand and a capable eye for self-promotion, Duca turned “Thigh-High Politics” into her tagline, making it the title of the political column she’d begun writing for Teen Vogue. In the years since, she’s taken on the Trump administration, sexism, and, in what some of her former coworkers see as a bitter irony, online harassment. Duca was harassed in a fairly disgusting way by now-jailed Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli, who was banned from Twitter for his comments about her. She wrote that the incident enraged her, and made her think about the reality of online harassment for other women journalists:
I’m often praised for being so tough, and that might be what needles me most of all. I am tough, and scrappy, and angry, and loud, but what about the people who aren’t? Harassment is guaranteed for women online, and a career hazard for female writers. Here’s a thought that haunts me: What about all of the young women who won’t become writers because of a fraction of what I’ve seen in my inbox this morning? I’m proud of being absurdly resilient, but I shouldn’t have to be.
In another interview, she called harassment of women journalists both “a career hazard” and “disgusting,” but again stressed that she was able to power through it, in part by acknowledging how hurtful she found it:
[W]hat helped me is admitting to myself that people saying these things hurts my feelings. I don’t have to be tougher than that; I can be resilient and power through it and defiantly express my opinion, but knowing the goal of harassment is to silence women, while it doesn’t make it easier to stomach emotionally, it does make it easier to confront.
Just this week, Duca and another writer named Talia Lavin were the subject of a truly obnoxious and fairly vile joke from conservative writer John Podhoretz, who said that their teaching at NYU this summer was cause to drop a neutron bomb on “J schools.” Podhoretz apologized for the joke and deleted his Twitter account—a net positive for the universe—and Duca joked on Twitter, “Update: 20% of my NYU course grade will now be earned by getting John Podhoretz to delete his account.”
Overall, though, Duca’s level of self-regard can feel excessive and even unwise to her former Huffington Post coworkers, who began more openly talking about the email incident as the years went by. According to several people, it stemmed from—of all things—a drunken tiff at a company Halloween party in October 2015.
Several people told us that in the months leading up to the email incident Duca had a growing amount of workplace tension with several of her coworkers. “There was a lot of drama,” one confirms, dryly, including both interpersonal conflicts and some amount of jealousy over the fact that Duca had been specifically plucked to write that special weekly email on pop culture.
The night things came to a head was, according to those present, fueled by a toxic mix of alcohol and semi-mandatory work-related socializing. According to one former co-worker who saw things unfold, Duca confronted someone at the Halloween party—one of the people with whom she’d been semi-feuding—and demanded to know why the woman had unfollowed her on Twitter. The woman, not wanting to get into a dispute at a work event, brushed her off and walked away. Soon after, Duca left the Halloween party. Then, per several of her former colleagues, the emails began rolling in—or, more specifically, the corrections.
“There’s an area on the website where people can leave corrections,” one former Huffington Post employee explained to me. “It’s not public, but you can enter your correction and the note you write gets sent to everybody on a certain listserv.” That would mean that a correction on an entertainment story gets sent to everyone on the entertainment listserv. “The listserv is all the editors so someone can hop online really fast. It also gets sent to standards.”
But the emails, per the coworker, also sometimes showed what address they were coming from. As Duca’s coworkers were still mingling at the party, minus her, they got an email on a story written by the woman she’d just argued with, referring to the woman as an “overweight fake blonde.” The address it was sent from showed as an iCloud account in Duca’s name.
Duca maintained to her colleagues, they say, that the email address was spoofed. She also tweeted something to that effect while the situation was unfolding:
A key aspect to unraveling the mystery here would be knowing whether the emails were sent from a desktop or a mobile phone. That’s important because of how the corrections system is set up. From a desktop, you have to manually enter your email into a field:
Which means, of course, that one could enter any email address. On a mobile phone, though, it appears that your email address will auto-populate, as we were able to verify by trying it ourselves. (In either case, one person tells us that editors included on the listserv would have been able to see the email address of the person who sent the correction.)
The theory, a former co-worker tells us, is that Duca realized what she’d done as soon as she sent the emails. (Duca, again, did not respond to several requests for comment from Jezebel.) Immediately, several of her former coworkers say, Duca responded to the emails to claim she was being impersonated.
“She’s like, ‘Who would ever do this? This is so fucked up,’” one recalls.
Another few emails were almost immediately sent from the same address, to the same email list, including the “bald freak” one. Another called a writer “stupid.” One even attacked Duca herself, calling her a “feminazi.”
Duca, her co-workers say, claimed throughout that she had been hacked.
“Everyone thought it was bizarre,” a co-worker says. “Nobody bought that explanation.” For one thing, the coworker says, the messages all read like the person writing them was familiar with the people they insulted. The person referred to as a “bald freak” did have a buzzcut, for instance, but it wasn’t visible in his author profile photo. The writer referred to as “stupid” was called by a shortened version of her name, not the version she used in her byline. People were also aware, of course, that Duca had been feuding with her colleagues, which increased their skepticism. (Numerous people told me that screenshots of these emails still exist, but no one seemed able or willing to provide them. One email was shown to me as a forwarded version.)
According to everyone I spoke to, the tides turned swiftly against Duca from that point on.
“When you go out and try to hide an anonymous attack on one of your own—people were pissed,” one person told me. “People hated her from then on out.”
One person who was targeted by the emails was particularly unamused and filed a formal internal complaint. The company began investigating the matter. Two weeks later, according to several people, the investigation, which the sources we spoke to believe involved the company’s IT department and Verizon Communications—Huffington Post’s parent company—was closed, and Duca subsequently left the company. (“We don’t comment on internal personnel matters,” a spokesperson for Huffington Post told me via email. Several editors who we’re told would have dealt with the matter directly did not respond to requests for comment.)
There is a possibility that situation was exactly what Duca described to her coworkers: that she was unfairly being accused of sending these emails, and that she had no viable way to defend herself, and had no choice but to leave the company. In texts to a co-worker just after her departure, which we were shown screenshots of, Duca denied sending the corrections. She called them “batshit” and added that she was thinking about suing the Huffington Post. “It’ll be like litigating with a brick wall,” she added. (There is no evidence she has ever sued or formally threatened to sue.)
Several people told me that they were surprised she didn’t more vigorously deny the claims, given that she was known for being a strongly opinionated writer who didn’t hesitate to advocate for herself with her editors. In her texts to the coworker, however, Duca likened Huffington Post to forced labor and said she didn’t want to jump into another job: “I’m emotionally exhausted and so scared of being in another fucked up internment camp.”
There was, then, no love lost on either side, and by all accounts, Duca moved on to a bigger stage with some relief.
The bizarre “corrections,” though, did not immediately stop.
According to two people, a few more filtered in between 2016 and 2017. All of them either insulted the “overweight fake blonde,” or else posed as her. The ones with her name on them, according to people who viewed them, were written in an angry or insulting tone, and were seemingly designed to create awkwardness for her at work. (The woman denied sending them, we are told, and no one believed they were really from her.)
But there’s no way to know for sure where those emails came from either. From there, the matter has stewed and festered below the surface, until Duca’s unearthed, cruel tweets about fatness and community college brought the matter back to life for some of her former co-workers.
The story of Duca’s ouster has been an almost comically open secret in media as her star has continued to rise, yet it has, for various reasons, never been reported on. (In January, a New York magazine writer referred cryptically to it as “the best known, least reported media gossip story of our time.”)
Some of the media silence, surely, stems from reasonable uncertainty about whether the foibles of a relatively minor public figure are actual news or just gossip. But the fact that it continues to generate so much backchannel discussion is also an indicator that the irony of the situation has struck many journalists, at least, as newsworthy: Here is an outspoken feminist advocate and champion for social justice who’s accused of cruelly harassing other women.
It would seem that many people, rather than deeming it not of interest, quite simply did not want to be the ones to make it public, possibly because of a fear of backlash or a concern about looking petty. That meant that this story has remained in far pettier realms, somewhere in the permanent churn of secretive media scuttlebutt—in secret Slack rooms and hidden Facebook groups—alongside other stories everyone is sure will someday be written and that no one is all that eager to touch themselves.
But Duca’s alleged past came to light again in January (by which I mean that journalists started subtweeting about it again) when several people, including a few of my coworkers, uncovered some very old, very bad tweets from her.
The tweets, which were mostly from 2009 through 2012, were largely cruel jokes about fat people, with a jab about community college students thrown in. (“Of course, they pick a fat girl to read a poem during the opening ceremony,” one went. “Fat girls have a lot of feelings.” She also said an apparent high school graduation ceremony held in a community college auditorium was “nice and convenient for the stupid kids.”)
Duca sent these tweets when she was in her late teens and early 20s. She says she’s evolved considerably since then, and surely has. (So has what’s considered good comedy on the Internet.) Duca responded to my coworker, Splinter’s Katherine Krueger, at the time, acknowledging that she made “some shitty fatphobic comments” in the past, but also asserting that she’s learned and evolved past them by learning to love herself. (She didn’t acknowledge the community college stuff.)
“Unequivocally,” she added, “I’m sorry and promise to do better.”
It was a reasonable apology. All of this, though, spurred an immediate round of rejoinders that seemed to be referencing Duca’s departure from Huffington Post.
“Have you ever apologized to your former coworkers at HuffPost?” reporter Tyler Kingkade tweeted. (He is, himself, a former Huffington Post reporter.)
At its heart, and before we even delve into the particulars, the question of whether any of this matters depends on where you come down on several issues. Is personal growth possible without any acknowledgment of what you’re accused of having done, let alone offering an apology? Is the left unhealthily obsessed with cancellation culture and sniping at each other rather than focusing on our real enemies? Have I avoided reporting this story for nearly two solid years—despite receiving dozens of tips about it and conducting some of these interviews in the summer of 2017—because I don’t want to deal with the volcanic mess that it’s going to unleash on my Twitter mentions?
These are all open questions, save the last one. I can’t speak to why no one else touched the story, but my editors and I have all shared a reluctance to report it out for years, for a complex mix of reasons. We didn’t want to punch down, as the saying goes, at a younger writer, and in my case, I was frankly reluctant to go after a woman for anything short of an egregious offense, especially a woman who isn’t an elected official or a true household name.
But as time went on, that began to feel like the wrong choice, one we were making more out of expediency and perhaps cowardice than actual news judgment. People had spoken to me about Duca’s alleged behavior and had shared the ways it had hurt and continued to hurt them, and I was choosing to walk away from it out of a desire to avoid controversy.
That didn’t feel like what my job is about, and it didn’t feel like what this cultural moment is about. We’re at a point where accountability matters perhaps more than it ever has. And an era of heightened accountability means reconciling our own behavior—past and present—with our standards. It got to a point where choosing not to do this story, allowing it to remain the realm of half-known, heavily-circulated journalism scuttlebutt and shady tweets, was no longer tolerable.
Even as I write this, though, I’m not entirely sure that making these allegations more visible does any good, and whether it necessarily creates a situation where reparative justice is possible. And without a response from Duca herself, though I made a sincere effort to reach her multiple times over two months, I simply don’t know how these alleged past actions inflect her current writing around power, justice, abuse, or harassment.
It’s clear that she’s given some thought to those issues, even if she didn’t respond to my questions about them. In late January, after I’d written a draft of this story and was waiting to hear from Duca about it, the course description she wrote for her planned NYU course began to circulate on Twitter. It came in for some teasing for not being altogether coherent. (“Through two reported essays and the establishment of a fully-conceptualized social media presence,” one part of the description reads, “the Feminist Journalist will establish the imperative of interconnected motivations in the ideology of feminism and practice of journalism in the totality of the writer’s communication with the world.”)
The course syllabus is also public. In it, Duca demonstrates an interest in the idea of public shaming: the course features an entire session dedicated specifically to the notion of online discourse and the subject of people being “canceled.”
“[P]ick a time a celebrity, politician, or other cultural figure was ‘cancelled,’ Duca’s assignment for the week reads. “What was the offense? How did condemnation arise? Was there an apology? If so, was it effective? Send me about 300 words addressing these questions.” One required book for the course is Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It’s an interesting idea. (Given that this story will be public by then, it will perhaps create a lively class discussion.)
At the same time, though, the course also promises to help students create “a concrete set of ethics for guiding radical transparency.” This seems like an unignorable irony, given the opaque circumstances around Duca’s rise and her seeming unwillingness to talk about it.
As I continued to report this piece out and talk to Duca’s former coworkers, she came in for yet another round of criticism for a tweet calling Kamala Harris a “prosecutorial renegade” and dismissing the controversy over Harris’s record as a prosecutor.
Perhaps frustrated over the Harris discourse—and minutes after I’d emailed her for the fourth time—Duca tweeted about her own frustrations with “cancellation culture.”
That point of view is, again, totally reasonable: it’s not kind or productive to simply pummel people when they’re making a sincere effort to change.
At the same time, though, growth and evolution would presumably require an acknowledgment of one’s past misdeeds. And the bigger Duca’s reach has become, the more relevant the mismatch between her public persona and her past alleged behavior has begun to feel.
“You have a huge audience,” Duca once counseled the permanently wrong Jonathan Chait, under a different set of circumstances. “And that should come with a sense of responsibility.”
We are all guilty, from time to time, of thinking of ourselves as the victim in situations where we’ve created harm. We are all capable of treating others badly, of doing things we’re ashamed of, and—with work and patience and the generosity of other people—of growing and learning as a result of those errors. It’s as difficult as anything in life; it’s constant, ongoing work.
It’s impossible to precisely map the distance between Duca’s personal conduct and public persona, given that she has apparently decided not to discuss it. The reality, though, is that however you read it, Duca’s past behavior has been at odds with the carefully curated personal brand she now promotes. This matters not just because she’s a prominent figure, but because she became a prominent figure by calling out other people’s moral failings and asking them to be better, and because she has presented being kind and good as something she has achieved, and is in a position to advise others on:
Being kind isn’t simple, though, and it isn’t easy. It’s also hard work, just like personal growth, and truly well-intentioned people mess it up all the time. Duca, to all evidence and by many accounts, wants credit for putting in work towards serious self-improvement that she hasn’t necessarily done. (Even leaving aside the allegations her former colleagues have made, her immediate response when her old tweets was resurfaced was to blame my coworker for resurfacing them, and to quickly turn the conversation towards her increased capacity for self-love.)
In the process of building her public persona, Duca has, specifically, made crusading against all types of harassment into one of the cornerstones of her public brand:
Making the choice to live life in public, and as a public arbiter of a certain kind of decency and ethical conduct, means that a person has to reckon with their treatment of others. The coworkers who received the emails certainly felt so; they have never understood, one told me, why Duca never addressed the matter.
Many of Duca’s former coworkers see her as symptomatic of a bigger issue, and as just one of the many people that the Twitter Resistancesphere has elevated into something approaching true fame—and for whom fame is seemingly a bigger motivator than politics or social change.
“The whole thing has actually been very revealing for me,” one former co-worker said recently, with a note of resignation. “In terms of what traits are valorized and rewarded in the media, and the mainstream liberal resistance.”
The ultimate issue seems a little different to me, though. At 28, Duca is fairly young, and like many young people, still figuring it all out. But due to a viral essay and the ability it gave her to project a certain moral authority, she’s been able to position herself as wiser, more ethically coherent, and more professionally skilled than she is.
It’s a nice bit of sleight of hand. It’s an opportunity many people would take. It’s also a disservice to her readers, her followers, and the NYU students taking her course, all of whom deserve more candor. But it is the perfect #Resistance grift for this moment.
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