A Washington Post reporter publicly on Tuesday demanded that the newspaper’s top editor publicly explain why she was suspended for her tweets minutes after Kobe Bryant’s death.
Felicia Sonmez, who covers national politics for the Post, was earlier in the day cleared to return to work after having been placed on paid administrative leave Sunday. But she nonetheless tweeted out a statement berating executive editor Marty Baron for how she was treated.
“I believe that Washington Post readers and employees, including myself, deserve to hear directly from Marty Baron,” she wrote.
Sonmez went on to accuse Baron of undermining the paper’s professed commitment to “tell ALL the truth.”
“Washington Post journalists endeavor to live up to the paper’s mission statement, which states, ‘The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world,'” she said. “My suspension, and Mr. Baron’s Jan. 26 email warning me that my tweets about a matter of public record were ‘hurting this institution,’ have unfortunately sown confusion about the depth of management’s commitment to this goal.”
Sonmez concluded: “I hope Washington Post newsroom leaders will not only prioritize their employees’ safety in the face of threats of physical harm but also ensure that no journalist will be punished for speaking the truth.”
Some of Sonmez’s fellow journalists praised her for standing up to her bosses. But others accused her of invoking high-minded journalistic principles to defend deplorable behavior.
You screamed rapist at flaming wreckage that claimed the lives of kids 10 minutes after it happened. But if playing Mariah Carey’s “Hero” on Spotify makes you feel better, hey, have at it https://t.co/8n6TgCPx4z
— Stephen Miller (@redsteeze) January 29, 2020
How Felicia Sonmez got suspended by the Washington Post
In the hours after Bryant, 41, and his daughter, 13-year-old Gianna died in a helicopter outside Los Angeles Sunday, Sonmez tweeted a link to an article about a 2003 sexual assault charges against the NBA legend. She faced widespread backlash for speaking ill of the newly dead.
Washington Post reporter @feliciasonmez deleted her crass tweets about Kobe Bryant. But screen grabs are forever – and I took some before she deleted the tweets.
Bye, Felicia. pic.twitter.com/IvNZHkiBam
— Matthew Keys (@MatthewKeysLive) January 26, 2020
In response, Sonmez posted a series of tweets complaining of “abuse and death threats” and defending her original post.
“Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she said. “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.”
Sonmez quickly deleted all her Bryant-related tweets. But Tracy Grant, the Post’s managing editor, later Sunday issued a statement saying that the reporter had been suspended for showing “poor judgement.”
“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.”
That prompted another wave of backlash, this time in defense of Sonmez.
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
The Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, on Monday penned an op-ed arguing that Sonmez did not violate the paper’s social media guidelines, which ask journalists no to share opinions online. In fact, Wemple said, the reporter appeared to “deserve a pat on the back from management” for her truth-telling about Bryant.
Soon thereafter, more than 400 of Sonmez’s colleagues added their names to a letter from the Washington Post NewsGuild to Baron and Grant that made a similar case.
In the petition, Post journalists described Sonmez’s tweet as “a statement of fact” and criticized their bosses for failing to take into account her personal history.
Felicia Sonmez and #MeToo
In 2018, Sonmez 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, after its publication registered a series of objections on Twitter about Yoffee’s tone and some of her reporting.
The Post responded by giving her a warning about about her social media activity. Sonmez reportedly filed a grievance over the warning through the guild, saying that she was defending herself against errors.
On Tuesday, the Post released a statement from Grant saying that, after a review, it had concluded that Sonmez “was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.”
The statement also referred to her tweets as “ill-timed” and continued: “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths. We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”
According to The New York Times, Baron and other top editors sent a memo to the staff after announcing the paper’s decision on Sonmez.
The editors said that the Post tries “to act quickly and thoroughly to protect and defend our colleagues from intimidation and threats.” But they added that the paper’s “policies on the use of social media — which date from 2011 — are in need of an update.”