The Washington Post has come under scrutiny from members of its own staff after the paper made the controversial decision to suspend one of its political reporters for tweets she posted after NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death.
The Post’s own media critic criticized the suspension as “misguided,” and the company’s guild, which represents about 1,000 employees, wrote a letter to the newspaper’s management expressing “alarm and dismay” at the decision.
In the letter, which was signed by more than 200 Post journalists, Managing Editor Tracy Grant and Executive Editor Marty Baron were urged to “take immediate steps to ensure the safety of our colleague” and to allow her to return to work.
The fracas over the tweets began Sunday after Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter at the Post, tweeted out a link to a 2016 story from The Daily Beast that detailed what is perhaps the darkest chapter in Bryant’s life: the 2003 rape allegation and subsequent settlement from the Los Angeles Laker.
At the time of Sonmez’s post, Twitter was awash with messages and tributes remembering Bryant, who died earlier that day in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Sonmez, who is a sexual assault survivor, wasn’t the only person to point out Bryant’s complicated legacy— but her tweet quickly went viral, and she endured an onslaught of vitriol and criticism.
In a subsequent tweet, Sonmez wrote that 10,000 people had commented and emailed her “with abuse and death threats.”
“Please take a moment and read the story — which was written 3+ years ago, and not by me. Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure is beloved and that totality is unsettling,” she wrote.
Sonmez also tweeted a screenshot of her inbox showing some of the hate-filled and expletive-laden messages she’d received. As Vox noted, the screenshot contained the full names of the people who’d emailed the reporter.
Grant, the Post’s managing editor, told Sonmez to take the three tweets down, which the reporter complied with; and Baron, the executive editor, reportedly emailed her a stern message to “stop.”
“Felicia,” Baron wrote, according to The New York Times. “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”
Grant later said in a statement that Sonmez had been “placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy.”
“The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” Grant added.
The Post has not clarified which of Sonmez’s tweets prompted her suspension.
Reporter Matthew Keys said it was the screenshot containing the names of her critics that the paper had been most troubled by. But a Post employee told Vox that Sonmez was suspended because of the “totality” of the three tweets and not one in particular.
Kris Coratti, head of communications at the paper, told Vox that Sonmez had not been suspended in reaction to the public being angered by the treatment of a popular sports personality.
“That’s not at all what Tracy said, and that’s not at all accurate,” Coratti said.
The Post has not responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Many of Sonmez’s colleagues have spoken up in support of the reporter since her suspension was announced.
“There’s incredible outrage. The outrage is like nothing I’ve ever seen here,” Vanity Fair quoted a Post source as saying. “People just feel like it was way over the top.”
Eric Wemple, the Post’s media critic, chastised the paper for its “misguided” suspension of Sonmez. He refuted the suggestion that Sonmez had violated the company’s social media policy and said it was part of a journalist’s job to speak the truth about famous figures ― even if those truths are complicated and hard to swallow.
“The backlash that alighted upon Sonmez stems from the ancient wisdom that urges folks not to speak ill of the dead,” Wemple wrote in a Post column. “It’s a fine rule for everyone except for historians and journalists, upon whom the public relies to provide warts-and-all look-backs on the lives of influential people. Bryant clearly qualifies, as does the particular incident that Sonmez was flagging in her tweet.”
Bryant was accused in 2003 of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. The athlete admitted to having a sexual encounter with the woman but said it had been consensual. The case was dropped before trial after the woman declined to testify in court. She filed a civil suit in 2005, which they settled.
As Wemple noted, many obituaries recounting Bryant’s life have mentioned the rape charge. HuffPost’s obituary included a paragraph about the allegation.
In its letter to Grant and Baron, the Post’s Guild wrote that “it is our responsibility as a news organization to tell the public the whole truth as we know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely.”
The Guild said the paper had failed to protect Sonmez even though she’d reported receiving violent threats that contained her home address.
Sonmez told Wemple that she checked into a hotel on Sunday night because she feared for her safety.
“Instead of protecting and supporting a reporter in the face of abuse, The Post placed her on administrative leave while newsroom leaders review whether she violated the social media policy. Felicia had to leave her home out of fear for her safety and has gotten insufficient guidance from the Post on how to protect herself,” the Guild wrote.
“We urge The Post to immediately provide Felicia with a security detail and take whatever other steps are necessary to ensure her safety, as it has done in the past when other reporters were subject to threats,” it continued, adding that the company should “issue a statement condemning abuse of its reporters, allow Felicia to return to work, rescind whatever sanctions have been imposed and provide her with any resources she may request as she navigates this traumatic experience.”
The Guild also lambasted the Post for showing “utter disregard for best practices in supporting survivors of sexual violence.”
Sonmez was one of two women to accuse Jonathan Kaiman, then the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, of sexual assault in 2018.
“Assault survivors inside and outside this newsroom deserve treatment that is fair and transparent; that does not blame victims or compromise the safety of survivors,” the Guild wrote in its letter.
Speaking to Wemple following her suspension, Sonmez said she was “confused” by the paper’s actions.
“I would argue that not ignoring a matter of public record is the way to go and making survivors feel seen and heard helps Washington Post journalists rather than making our jobs harder,” Sonmez said. “We are more able to do our jobs because we’ve demonstrated to those survivors that we’re worthy of their trust. I’m a little confused. If The Post is arguing that letting those survivors feel seen makes other colleagues’ jobs harder, I’d appreciate an explanation.”
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