The Post has suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez following her social-media activity over the death of NBA great Kobe Bryant. Here’s the explanation from Managing Editor Tracy Grant: “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. The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

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

News of Bryant’s death on Sunday prompted an immediate and overwhelming expression of grief on Twitter, with fans and followers praising an NBA icon. The perennial all-star perished in a helicopter crash along with eight other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Sonmez wished to remind everyone of one incident in Bryant’s life:

An immediate and overwhelming expression of anger piled on Sonmez from Twitter users. Sonmez had directed her followers to this April 2016 story in the Daily Beast by Marlow Stern. Written at the time of Bryant’s farewell tour through NBA cities, the story takes a deep look at the sexual-assault allegation against Bryant stemming from his 2003 visit to Colorado’s Lodge & Spa at Cordillera. The case never made it to trial because the 19-year-old accuser — “who had been dragged through the mud for months by the media and Bryant’s defense team,” wrote Stern — declined to testify. She did, however, file a separate civil complaint, which Bryant settled. Bryant issued an extensive apology to the accuser and others in securing dismissal of the criminal case. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” it reads, in part.

Twitter users didn’t care for Sonmez’s contribution to the conversation about Bryant’s life:

Many of the messages express similar thoughts in ways that disqualify themselves from repetition on a family-friendly newspaper’s website. Monitoring her mentions on Twitter, Sonmez spotted a great deal of abuse and animus, as she later noted on Twitter itself: “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,” Sonmez tweeted, as chronicled by Matthew Keys. A fuller look at the reply:

In one of her Twitter posts, Sonmez included an image of her email inbox containing the email names of people who’d participated in the vile pushback.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Sonmez says that on Sunday afternoon, she emailed Grant and her editor, Peter Wallsten, to alert them to the threats she’d received. “Just so they’d be aware that things were getting a little out of hand, I sent them links to my tweets,” she says. “Tracy wrote back a couple of hours later asking me to take down those tweets.” Sonmez reports that she was a “little delayed” in taking down the tweets, in part because she was concerned about the threats: Someone, she says, had posted her address.

Management continued to worry about the tweets, says Sonmez, noting that Grant sent her another message saying that if she didn’t delete them, she’d be “in violation of a directive from a managing editor.” She deleted the tweets, providing a victory for all those who’d attacked her for posting a perfectly fine news story.

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 email 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.”

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. Two, the contention that sharing a link to a news article complicates the work of others requires supporting evidence. “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. We are more able to do our jobs because we’ve demonstrated to those survivors that we’re worthy of their trust,” says Sonmez. “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.”

In 2018, Sonmez came forward with allegations that Jonathan Kaiman, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, had sexually assaulted her after a drunken night in Beijing in September 2017. Sonmez’s account followed similar allegations from another woman. After an investigation by the Times, Kaiman resigned. He issued a statement saying that the acts were “mutually consensual” and the allegations “have irrevocably destroyed my reputation, my professional network, my nine year career in journalism, and any hope for a rewarding career in the future; they have branded me with a scarlet letter for life, and driven me to the brink of suicide.”

The Erik Wemple Blog asked Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti which social-media guidelines Sonmez may have violated. Coratti replied that the company wasn’t saying anything outside of its statement. On the one hand, the statement says that the newspaper will be reviewing whether the tweets violated policies. On the other hand, it also indicated that the tweets “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

The guidelines themselves cover a number of common-sense rules when tweeting. “Social-media accounts maintained by Washington Post journalists — whether on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or elsewhere — reflect upon the reputation and credibility of The Washington Post’s newsroom,” reads part of the entry under the heading “Maintain Credibility.” “Even as we express ourselves in more personal and informal ways to forge better connections with our readers, we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence.” As for linking to other news stories, the guidelines urge Post journalists to:

  • “Be informative. Social media encourages sharing of the human experience, but we should balance personal information with useful information.”
  • “Fact-check. Information on social networks needs to be verified like any other information. Work to verify the authenticity of people and organizations before attributing facts or quotes to them.”
  • “Take ownership. If you mistakenly retweet or forward erroneous information, correct your mistake in a subsequent tweet/update and make an effort to provide a more accurate link.”

By those standards, Sonmez’s tweet would appear to invite a pat on the back from management. Another document on Post policies and standards includes this imperative: “Even as we express ourselves in more personal and informal ways to forge better connections with our readers, we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence. Every comment or link we share should be considered public information, regardless of privacy settings,” it reads.

In his write-up of the events, Keys reports that Post management was mostly concerned that Sonmez had disclosed names of people who’d sent her emails. “That’s the first that I had heard of that explanation,” says Sonmez, who notes that Grant hadn’t mentioned that consideration.

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: Though precisely what happened in that hotel room may never be known, as Stern concedes, there’s a lot that is known. In a profile of Bryant published in November 2018, The Post included a substantive recounting of the incident. Obituaries also included mention of the case.

At the top of The Post’s policies and standards document are the famous Eugene Meyer principles, named after a former owner of the newspaper. One of them states, “The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.”

UPDATE (4:52 p.m.): The Washington Post Guild has issued a statement in support of Sonmez:

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