Washington Post suspends reporter after her tweets on Kobe Bryant; over 100 employees criticise move

The Washington Post suspended one of its reporters, Felicia Sonmez, after she posted tweets Sunday about Kobe Bryant in the hours after his death

The New York Times January 28, 2020 12:11:19 IST
Washington Post suspends reporter after her tweets on Kobe Bryant; over 100 employees criticise move

The Washington Post suspended one of its reporters, Felicia Sonmez, after she posted tweets Sunday about Kobe Bryant in the hours after his death. More than 100 Post journalists criticised the paper’s decision on Monday.

Sonmez on Sunday posted a link on Twitter to a 2016 Daily Beast article that detailed an allegation of sexual assault made against Bryant in 2003. Her tweet appeared amid a flood of public tributes to the retired Los Angeles Lakers star, who died earlier that day in a helicopter crash at age 41.

Sonmez received an email from The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, at 5.38 pm, before she was told that she would be placed on leave. The reporter shared the three-sentence email with The New York Times.

“Felicia,” Baron wrote. “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

The text of Baron’s email was attached to a screen shot of Sonmez’s tweet linking to the Daily Beast article. A spokeswoman for The Post and Baron did not reply to requests for comment on the email.

Bryant was arrested in 2003 after a complaint by a hotel employee in Colorado. A charge of felony sexual assault was dropped in 2005, and Bryant settled with his accuser out of court, saying in a statement that he believed the encounter with the woman was “consensual,” although he had come to understand that she did not see it the same way.

Sonmez’s tweet drew a swift backlash from other Twitter users. She followed it with a post about the negative responses she had received.

Washington Post suspends reporter after her tweets on Kobe Bryant over 100 employees criticise move

Representational image. Reuters

“Well, THAT was eye-opening,” she wrote. “To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story — which was written (more than three) years ago, and not by me.”

Sonmez also posted what appeared to be a screenshot of an email she had received that used offensive language, called her a lewd name and displayed the sender’s full name.

She deleted the three tweets after being told to do so by Tracy Grant, the newspaper’s managing editor, but not before other journalists captured them in screen shots.

The Post confirmed the paid suspension Monday, but didn’t specify which of the tweets had prompted it to take action.

“National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated the Post newsroom’s social media policy,” Grant said in a statement. “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

After Sonmez deleted the tweets Sunday, she received an email from Grant acknowledging the threats she had received.

“Thank you for deleting the tweets,” Grant wrote to her in an email that Sonmez shared with The Times. “You might want to consider a hotel or a friend’s place for this evening.”

The reaction among Sonmez’s colleagues started to emerge Monday with a post on Erik Wemple Blog, The Post’s media criticism column, and in a letter that was organised by the NewsGuild, the union that represents Post journalists, and signed by more than 130 staff members, including the paper’s most prominent reporters.

In his post, Wemple called the suspension “misguided.”

The letter signed by Post journalists, which was addressed to Baron and Grant, criticised how the paper handled the matter.

“Felicia received an onslaught of violent messages, including threats that contained her home address, in the wake of a tweet Sunday regarding Kobe Bryant,” the letter said. “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.”

While acknowledging the tragedy of Bryant’s death, the letter went on to note that “we believe it is our responsibility as a news organisation to tell the public the whole truth as we know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely.”

Sonmez said in an interview that she did not add any commentary of her own to the tweet that included a link to the Daily Beast article.

“Because The Post does have policies governing these things, all I did was tweet out a link to the story,” she said. “I didn’t think it was my place to provide any further commentary.”

When others on social media started sending her messages that called her rude names and made death threats and rape threats, she followed The Post’s security protocol by contacting Grant.

Grant wrote back, telling her to delete the tweets on Bryant. By then, Sonmez said, someone had posted her home address online.

In the many emails she received Sunday, Sonmez said she had missed the one from Baron, adding that she did not read it until the next afternoon.

The debate over when it is appropriate to note the flaws and mistakes of prominent people in the immediate aftermath of their deaths is common on social media. The reaction against Sonmez’s tweets seemed fueled by how the #MeToo movement has complicated the legacies of artists, actors, athletes and other popular figures who have been accused of sexual misconduct.

Bryant reached a settlement with his accuser in 2005, more than a decade before powerful men including the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, the CBS anchor Charlie Rose and the CBS Corp chief executive Leslie Moonves left their posts or were ousted from their roles after allegations were made against them.

Sonmez said she was in The Post’s newsroom at the time of her tweets.

“I expected to get some blowback,” she said. “I can understand that it would be difficult for people to read that, but it’s also difficult, I imagine, for all of the survivors in the country to see these allegations essentially be erased, which is how I felt in those couple of hours in the newsroom.”

Sonmez was one of two women who accused Jonathan Kaiman, a Beijing bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, of sexual misconduct. After The Los Angeles Times conducted an investigation in 2018, Kaiman resigned.

Journalist Emily Yoffe wrote an article last year on the accusations against Kaiman and their repercussions for Reason, a magazine published by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. Sonmez criticised the article for what she described as its omissions and “basic” factual errors. Reason updated the article and appended a note at the end of it to address what it called “three minor matters of fact”. Sonmez posted some of her criticisms on Twitter.

The NewsGuild and The Post’s journalists referred to the reporter’s personal history in their letter Monday.

“This is not the first time that The Post has sought to control how Felicia speaks on matters of sexual violence,” the letter said. “Felicia herself is a survivor of assault who bravely came forward with her story two years ago.”

After saying that The Post had shown an “utter disregard for best practices in supporting survivors of sexual violence,” the letter called the paper’s social media policy arbitrary and overbroad, adding, “We have repeatedly seen colleagues — including members of management — share contentious opinions on social media platforms without sanction. But here a valued colleague is being censured for making a statement of fact.”

Rachel Abrams c.2020 The New York Times Company

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