A Washington Post reporter was suspended by the newspaper Sunday after she responded to Kobe Bryant’s death by tweeting a link to a years-old news article about his sexual assault case.
Felicia Sonmez, who covers national politics for the Post, posted the link to Twitter shortly after news broke that Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash outside Los Angeles. Other prominent figures — including President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama — publicly grieved the death of the NBA legend at age 41.
Sonmez initially made no comment on the article, which was published by The Daily Beast after Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016. She simply restated the headline: ‘Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.”
The Daily Beast reporter recounted how in 2003, a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado, accused Bryant of sexual assault. Brant admitted to cheating on his wife with the woman, but said the encounter was consensual. A judge dismissed the case in 2004 after the accuser refused to testify. Bryant later settled a separate civil case with the woman.
Sonmez faced fierce backlash after sharing the article.
“Well, THAT was eye-opening”
In a series of followup tweets, she complained about receiving “abuse and death threats.”
“Well, THAT was eye-opening,” she said. “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 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 unsettling.”
She continued: “That folks are responding with rage and threats toward me (someone who didn’t even write the piece but found it well-reported) speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.”
In a third tweet, Sonmez shared a screen shot showing angry messages in her email inbox.
“As an addendum: Hard to see what’s accomplished by messages such as these,” she said. “If your response to a news article is to resort to harassment and intimidation of journalists, you might want to consider that your behavior says more about you than the person you’re targeting.”
Sonmez later deleted the tweets, but Twitter users continued to share screen shots of them. The hashtag #FireFeliciaSonmez was trending Sunday evening.
Actress and social media influencer called Sonmez’s tweets “badly timed” and a “low blow to the family right now.”
“Don’t even try to play victim when you inevitably get ratioed for this post either, you deserve the penance,” she said.
I don’t even like basketball and I wasn’t a Kobe fan…and even I think this is a badly timed, low blow to the family right now. Don’t even try to play victim when you inevitably get ratioed for this post either, you deserve the penance.
— Mindy Robinson 🇺🇸 (@iheartmindy) January 26, 2020
Conservative radio host Todd Starnes called Sonmez and the Post “perfect examples of why Americans find the Mainstream Media so detestable.”
— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) January 26, 2020
Other commentators noted that Sonmez was not alone in questioning Bryant’s character immediately after his death. The Stranger’s Katie Herzog was among those who suggested the timing was inappropriate.
Thank you to the only souls brave enough to talk about what really matters today pic.twitter.com/udHk2dW9mW
— Katie Herzog (@kittypurrzog) January 27, 2020
Tracy Grant, the Post’s managing editor, confirmed to the Daily Mail on Sunday that Sonmez had been suspended over her tweets.
“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,” she said. “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”
The Post’s decision spurred a new round of controversy. Many journalists suggested the newspaper was wrong to “cancel” Sonmez even if she had tried to cancel Bryant.
This is absolutely outrageous.
You don’t even have to agree with @feliciasonmez tweets to agree that for her to be suspended for tweeting out a newsstory and then talking about being harassed for her tweets is an insane reaction. https://t.co/Ii0d5dWxot
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) January 27, 2020
Felicia Sonmez and #MeToo
Sonmez has personal experience with the controversy that can accompany allegations of sexual misconduct.
In 2018, she was one of two women who went public with #MeToo stories about separate drunken sexual encounters years ago with mutual friend Jonathan Kaiman. The accusations cost Kaiman his position as Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and his journalism career.
Emily Yoffee, in an article for Reason published last October, raised questions about Sonmez’s story and how she told it. Yoffee said what happened to Kaiman “should be a warning about the dangers of moral panics and of applying mob justice and the bazooka of social media to private relations.”
Sonmez, who declined to comment for the article, responded to its publication by registering a series of objections on Twitter about Yoffee’s tone and some of her reporting.
In response, the Post gave her a warning about about her social media activity. Sonmez reportedly filed a grievance over the warning through the NewsGuild, saying that she was defending herself against errors.