Washington Post newsroom rallies around reporter who was suspended for posting Kobe Bryant tweets

Washington Post newsroom rallies around reporter who was suspended for posting Kobe Bryant tweets
Photo via Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons.

After the death of basketball icon Kobe Bryant on Sunday, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article discussing the rape allegation Bryant faced in 2003. Bryant was suspended by the Post for her tweets, and there has been a major revolt over Sonmez’ suspension in the Post’s newsroom — where, according to Vanity Fair reporters Joe Pompeo and Michael Calderone, over 200 of her colleagues are urging the Post to reinstate her.

“Post staffers were looking for clarity Monday after Managing Editor Tracy Grant said in a statement that Sonmez violated the newsroom’s social media policy and ‘displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,’” Pompeo and Calderone explain.

In 2003, a Colorado woman accused Bryant of raping her in a hotel room — an allegation he denied. The accuser decided not to testify, and the criminal case was eventually dropped; however, she filed a civil lawsuit separately. Thirteen years later, the Daily Beast revisited the case in the 2016 article that Sonmez tweeted.

Sonmez was bombarded with angry tweets and received some death threats after tweeting the Beast’s article. Pompeo and Calderone note, “Vitriol and threats streamed into Sonmez’ inbox, which she relayed on Twitter, along with screenshots of the attacks.” And Sonmez deleted the Bryant-related tweets she had posted.

“The Daily Beast article was an exhaustive chronicle of the allegations against Bryant and his response to them,” Pompeo and Calderone observe. “While far from flattering to Bryant, it described an inescapable part of his history, and fraught as social media can be in the current world of journalism, it was difficult for many to see how posting it was out of bounds.”

On Monday, Pompeo and Calderone report, the Washington Post Guild rushed to Sonmez’ defense and expressed “alarm and dismay” to Grant as well as Executive Editor Marty Baron and urged them to reinstate Sonmez and “take immediate steps to ensure the safety of our colleague.” More than 200 Post employees signed a letter in support of the suspended journalist.

Although a Washington Post spokesperson declined to be interviewed for the Vanity Fair article, the Post obviously isn’t afraid to subject itself to its own scrutiny: on Monday afternoon, the Post published an op-ed by media critic Erik Wemple that lambasted the publication for suspending Sonmez.

“What did Sonmez do to deserve this brushback?,” Wemple writes. “She tweeted out a very good story from the Daily Beast.”

Wemple notes that Sonmez was subjected to “a great deal of abuse and animus” on Twitter after tweeting the Beast’s article. Sonmez, Wemple points out, e-mailed Grant and Peter Wallsten (a Post editor she reported to) to let them know that she was being inundated with threats.

Sonmez was also doxed, according to Wemple — who notes that someone posted her home address. Wemple explains, “Fearing for her safety at home, Sonmez checked into a hotel on Sunday night. In a phone call with Grant, she learned that she was being placed on administrative leave, effective immediately. The Post’s concerns with the tweets, Grant had indicated in an e-mail to Sonmez, were that they didn’t ‘pertain’ to the reporter’s ‘coverage area’ and that ‘your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.’”

Wemple lays out some reasons why he considers Sonmez’ suspension to be wildly inappropriate.

“A couple of thoughts about those objections: one, if journalists at the Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave,” Wemple asserts. “Two, the contention that sharing a link to a news article complicates the work of others requires supporting evidence.”

Wemple goes on to say, “The backlash that alighted upon Sonmez stems from the ancient wisdom that urges folks not to speak ill of the dead. 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.”

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