Correcting the record

Every #MeToo story contains two traumas: First, the event itself. Then, the story becoming public. 

A recent New York Magazine cover story compiled the experiences of 25 people who publicly came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault—and whose lives were not universally the better for it. Victims might share their stories with the media in hopes of achieving accountability and justice, or of protecting other women, but in return they risk losing their jobs, their friends, their reputations, their peace of mind. Worse, perhaps, they risk losing control of their own story.

The 25 people in the New York Magazine story are not the only ones to tell their stories, nor are they the only ones who take a risk in the telling.

ICYMI: I now publish #MeToo stories on my blog, for free. Here’s why.

In the spring of 2018, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter based in Washington, DC, wrote a letter to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China detailing allegations against Jon Kaiman, her former colleague there. Sonmez alleged that one evening in 2017, when Kaiman was president of the FCCC, he digitally penetrated her twice without her consent, attempted to take his pants off while she protested, then later had unprotected sex with her while she was too intoxicated to consent. 

Sonmez’s allegations resembled those of Laura Tucker, another woman who had come forward publicly earlier in the year, and both women’s stories were quickly picked up by a number of publications including the Hong Kong Free Press and the Los Angeles Times, Kaiman’s employer. The Times opened an investigation, and Kaiman eventually resigned. For Sonmez, the official investigation came as a relief, but the public attention also prolonged her trauma. 

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“I’m very grateful that the LA Times took this issue seriously,” Sonmez says. Still, “it was really tough. The trauma of coming forward really hit me. I couldn’t bike. I couldn’t drive. The one time I finally was able to go to the grocery store, I just sort of stood there in shock. My world just, really quickly, sort of shrunk.”

In August, a year after Kaiman resigned from the Times, Emily Yoffe, a journalist, published an article for Reason Magazine arguing that Kaiman had suffered unearned professional and emotional damage. “#MeToo is a crucial and worthy movement to address real abuses,” Yoffe wrote to me in an email. “But as I know from my years of reporting on campus sexual assault, with any such movement comes the possibility of overreach. I felt the story of Jon Kaiman, and the larger implications of what happened, was an important one to tell.”

It’s impossible, though, to tell a #MeToo story with only one character. Yoffe set out to tell Kaiman’s story, but in so doing she brought Sonmez back into the public eye.

 

In my case, it’s been a process of having to keep reasserting myself and making sure my own voice was heard. When people have tried to put their own spin on my story, I’ve had to push back.

 

Yoffe had reached out to Sonmez in August to ask for an interview for the Reason article. Before replying, Sonmez reviewed Yoffe’s past writing on sexual assault. She decided that Yoffe would not offer a fair perspective on her own experience, and declined the interview. Instead, she sent Yoffe a link to a South China Morning Post story in which she had been quoted. 

One Friday morning a few weeks later, Sonmez saw a flurry of furious comments on her Twitter feed. Yoffe’s piece had been published. “I found a link to the article, took a deep breath, and sat down,” Sonmez remembers. She read it start to finish, growing increasingly uncomfortable as she went on. 

“About halfway through reading the piece, it became clear to me that her approach was to sort of cast me as a villain,” Sonmez says. Yoffe wrote that Sonmez had “deputized” a friend on the board when she asked him to share her allegations at an FCCC meeting, that Sonmez “conceded” that she didn’t remember all the events of the evening, that she had sent Kaiman a “friendly” text after the incident, that in the months between her conversation with Kaiman and her letter to the FCCC, she was “building a case against him.” Yoffe also described the events as an example of “mob justice,” though the FCCC had discussed Tucker’s and Sonmez’s allegations at length internally and also with Kaiman directly. At a public meeting in May 2018, there was a robust debate about what action to take, and many FCCC members are still divided in their feelings on the matter.

Sonmez composed a letter to Katherine Mangu-Ward, Yoffe’s editor, documenting nineteen moments in the piece that she felt had been reported inaccurately. She posted the letter and accompanying documentation to Twitter. In response, Reason issued three corrections regarding what Mangu-Ward deemed “points of fact”: the chronology of Sonmez’s language study in China, a description of the FCCC’s Twitter response, and a description of Sonmez’s reaction to Kaiman’s resignation.

“We read her letter and took all of its points very seriously,” Mangu-Ward says. “To our minds, in the end, many of those things were questions of interpretation or things that she would have liked to see in the piece that we didn’t think belonged there.” 

Meanwhile, Yoffe’s article circulated. David Brooks, Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and other prominent journalists shared the story on Twitter. (Brooks also shared Sonmez’s response later, upon her request.) Some outlets responded critically: Vox noted that women who come forward about sexual assault are often blamed or shamed, and Jezebel reported some of the details that had been omitted from Yoffe’s piece. 

Other outlets included the story in their #MeToo coverage. NPR discussed the piece in a segment on #MeToo, in which Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan referred to “hurt feelings” being the motivation for sexual-assault allegations. Sonmez objected on Twitter, and later, Flanagan mentioned her name on a podcast as part of a conversation about the “weaponization of alleged female vulnerability.” Sonmez was a “hellcat of all hellcats,” Flanagan said, and the hosts agreed, calling her “hysterical,” “irrational,” and “punitive.” 

“It’s exhausting for survivors because it’s not like you speak out once and then it’s over,” says Sonmez. “In my case, it’s been a process of having to keep reasserting myself and making sure my own voice was heard. When people have tried to put their own spin on my story, I’ve had to push back.”

Reporters often attempt to extrapolate larger truths from single stories, but #MeToo stories are complicated, and there’s a lot at stake in reporting them accurately—for readers and for subjects. Sonmez notes that “it takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to actually correct the record,” and that as a journalist herself, she is in a better position to make those demands. “But, for a lot of other people, there’s little recourse.” 

Although the #MeToo movement has drawn its power from the collective, each individual #MeToo story is defined not by its universality but by what it meant to the people who lived it. No single #MeToo story can stand as a representative of what the #MeToo movement is, or what it isn’t. The best service journalists can offer to the movement and to survivors is telling those stories with complexity and compassion.

ICYMI: Reporter fired by The Des Moines Register tells his side of the story

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Lauren Harris is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites