A top editor at The Washington Post said Tuesday that a reporter who was suspended for tweets she posted in the immediate aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death had not violated the newspaper’s social media policy. The reporter has been reinstated.
The reporter, Felicia Sonmez, faced a fierce backlash online after she tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast story — just hours following news of the basketball legend’s tragic helicopter crash— that detailed a sexual assault allegation made against him.
Bryant was accused in 2003 of sexual assault, but the criminal charge was later dropped. Although Bryant stopped short of admitting guilt, he did acknowledge that while he viewed the encounter as consensual, his accuser did not. Bryant later settled a civil suit with his accuser for an undisclosed amount of money.
The Post said on Monday that Sonmez had been placed on administrative leave while it reviewed whether her tweets violated the newspaper’s policies — an action that was widely criticized by journalists, including The Post’s media critic Erik Wemple.
“After conducting an internal review, we have determined that, while we consider Felicia’s tweets ill-timed, she was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy,” Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Post, said in a statement.
“Reporters on social media represent The Washington Post, and our policy states ‘we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence,’” Grant continued. “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths.”
Grant concluded, “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”
A spokesperson for The Post added to CNN Business that Sonmez had been reinstated.
Grant had said in a Monday statement that Sonmez’s tweets “displayed poor judgement that undermined the work of her colleagues.” And, according to The New York Times, Marty Baron, The Post’s executive editor, emailed Sonmez after her tweets were initially posted to say they showed “a real lack of judgement.”
On Tuesday, Sonmez tweeted that she believes the newspaper’s readers and staff — including herself— should hear directly from Baron about the matter.
“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 wrote. “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.”
Wemple wrote on Monday that The Post’s suspension of Sonmez was “misguided.”
Sonmez told Wemple she stayed in a hotel room Sunday night for fear of her safety after receiving death threats for her tweets.
According to Wemple, Grant previously said in an email to her that the paper’s concern with Sonmez’s tweet was that it didn’t “pertain” to her “coverage area.”
But, as Wemple noted, “If journalists at The Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave.”
Sonmez was one of two people who accused Jonathan Kaiman, the former Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, of sexual misconduct in 2018.
Following an investigation, Kaiman ultimately resigned, according to the New York Times, though he defended his actions and said the actions were “mutually consensual.”
In a statement released on Monday, The Post Guild, which represents employees at the newspaper, said, “This is not the first time that The Post has sought to control how Felicia speaks on matters of sexual violence.”
“Felicia herself is a survivor of assault who bravely came forward with her story two years ago. When articles attacking her were published in other outlets, The Post did not release a statement in support of one of its respected political reporters,” The Post Guild noted. “Instead, management issued a warning letter against Felicia for violating The Post’s vague and inconsistently enforced social media guidelines.”
The Post Guild skewered The Post, saying the newspaper had “failed to offer a clear explanation of why she was placed on leave.”