The Media Today

Felicia Sonmez and the tyranny of the social-media policy

January 29, 2020

This article was also published by Guardian US.

On Sunday—amid the wave of public eulogizing that followed the death of Kobe Bryant—many people on Twitter stressed that we should also remember the time he was credibly accused of raping a hotel worker in Colorado. (Bryant denied the claim, but later settled with the woman, and said he understood “how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”) One such tweeter was Felicia Sonmez, a politics reporter at the Washington Post. Sonmez has consistently been vocal on issues of sexual assault; in 2018, she alleged that she had been abused by Jon Kaiman, who then worked for the LA Times. (Another woman made a similar claim; Kaiman, who subsequently lost his job, has strongly denied wrongdoing.) On Sunday, Sonmez first linked to a Daily Beast story (which she didn’t write) about the Bryant rape case without adding commentary of her own. She elaborated, but only after receiving a rash of abusive messages—including, she said, death threats. “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality,” she wrote. “That folks are responding with rage & threats toward me… speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.” She also shared a screenshot of one nasty message she had received, without masking the sender’s name.

Managers at the Post were not happy with Sonmez. According to Rachel Abrams, of the New York Times, Marty Baron, the paper’s top editor, emailed Sonmez a screenshot of her first Bryant tweet, along with the message: “Felicia, a real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” Tracy Grant, managing editor at the Post, then told Sonmez to delete the tweets, before suspending her on the grounds that she had strayed beyond her “coverage area,” and “undermined” her colleagues’ work. Responding to the threats Sonmez had faced, Grant added that she “might want to consider a hotel or a friend’s place for this evening.” (At least one of the threats referenced Sonmez’s home address; Sonmez had contacted Grant to flag the threats, as mandated by the Post’s security protocols.) This, many critics noted, felt like a dereliction of the paper’s duty to ensure the safety of its staff.

Related: Correcting the record

Many such critics could be found inside the Post’s newsroom. The paper’s guild wrote an open letter to Baron and Grant, accusing them of failing to protect Sonmez and noting that this isn’t the first time management “has sought to control how Felicia speaks on matters of sexual violence.” As of last night, nearly 350 staffers had signed the letter. Opinion writers at the paper used their platforms to come to Sonmez’s defense, too. On Monday, Erik Wemple wrote that the backlash against her was rooted in “the ancient wisdom that urges folks not to speak ill of the dead,” which is “a fine rule for everyone except for historians and journalists.” Yesterday, David Von Drehle concurred with Wemple. Sonmez, he wrote, had been punished for keeping “both eyes on the truth—or more precisely, on one particular truth, namely that somewhere a woman was experiencing this outpouring of adulation for a man who choked and lacerated her during an encounter that she called a rape, and which he acknowledged was very much like one.”

Late yesterday, the Post retreated. In a statement, it said that following a “review,” it had concluded that Sonmez’s tweets were “ill-timed,” but “not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.” Sonmez was reinstated, though the statement was notably missing an apology. In a statement of her own, Sonmez hit back, insisting that she and her colleagues deserve to hear directly from Baron, and noting that the episode had “sown confusion” about the Post’s values.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As some observers (including Charlie Warzel, of the Times) noted, the Sonmez fiasco is a fresh reminder that newsrooms still struggle when coordinated mobs of online culture warriors target their staff. (Baron and Grant clearly feared institutional blowback, though it’s possible they found Sonmez’s tweets distasteful on their own terms.) The Post isn’t alone here. Last year, the Times caused a mini media panic when it reported that “a loose network of conservative operatives” had compiled dossiers incriminating “hundreds” of reporters at leading outlets. (The “loose network” has since been mysteriously quiet.) For some reason, A.G. Sulzberger, the Times’s publisher, deemed this development worthy of public comment; he called it a clear attempt to harass his reporters (which was correct), but added that the paper would nonetheless be diligent in responding to “legitimate problems” raised by “anyone—even those acting in bad faith.” This handed the harassers a victory, at least to some small extent.

Sonmezgate also exposes a more routine problem: the tyranny of the newsroom social media policy. Ostensibly, such policies are meant to safeguard journalists and their bosses against the pitfalls of the internet; in practice, they often read like hamfisted attempts to reconcile competing impulses. That of the Post, for instance, says, in part, that reporters should communicate in “more personal and informal ways” to better connect with readers, but should also prioritize preserving the paper’s reputation “for journalistic excellence, fairness, and independence.” Such wording invites flawed—not to mention inconsistent—application. “We have repeatedly seen colleagues—including members of management—share contentious opinions on social media platforms without sanction,” the Post Guild wrote in its letter supporting Sonmez. “But here a valued colleague is being censured for making a statement of fact.”

Again, the Post isn’t alone; tensions like these exist across the media industry. We warn aspiring journalists that they won’t be hired unless they have thousands of Twitter followers they can mine for clicks, while also warning them that they won’t be hired if they ever expressed an opinion online. (Regrettably, Twitter followers tend to like opinions.) The Trump era has made things worse. Newsrooms have moved to monetize their reporters’ humanity (Ring, ring. Ring, ring. “Hi, it’s Michael.”) without really letting them show any preconceptions, or mistakes, or life experiences—the things that actual humans are made of. (Life is not lived in “coverage areas.”) All of which is very ironic: in many cases, trust in the press has declined not because reporters have manifest flaws, but because news organizations insist on pretending that they do not.

Yes, there are things reporters shouldn’t do: campaign for candidates, lie, display prejudice, etc. But these are so obvious—and so intrinsic to what it means to be a journalist—that they hardly need to be codified in an inflexible policy. Which raises the question: what are such policies for, really? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they’re a tool of management control.

Below, more on Sonmez and the Post:

  • Correcting the record: Last year, Emily Yoffe wrote an article for Reason Magazine arguing that Kaiman had wrongly suffered professional and personal damage. Sonmez felt the piece contained a string of inaccuracies, and wrote to Reason requesting corrections; she also posted her letter and supporting evidence to Twitter. The magazine made only three changes. “It’s been a process of having to keep reasserting myself and making sure my own voice was heard,” Sonmez told CJR’s Lauren Harris in November. “When people have tried to put their own spin on my story, I’ve had to push back.”
  • Women and the Post: Critics of the Sonmez decision shared other instances in which the Post was criticized on issues pertaining to gender. Last year, Irin Carmon alleged that the Post killed a story she’d been working on about sexual-harassment allegations against Jeff Fager, of CBS. (The allegations later surfaced in the New Yorker; the Post said five editors agreed that the Fager story didn’t meet its standards.) Also last year, the Post Guild assessed pay structures at the paper, and found that women and staffers of color were being paid less than white male employees.
  • Bryant’s death: Sonmez’s Post colleague Margaret Sullivan writes that media coverage of Bryant’s death was “a chaotic mess.” Our collective handling of his rape case was just one part of the problem.

Other notable stories:

  • Last night, the Wall Street Journal broke big news on the impeachment front: Rebecca Ballhaus, Lindsay Wise, and Natalie Andrews reported that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, privately concedes that he doesn’t currently have the votes to block the calling of witnesses in Trump’s trial. (As ever, though, it’s best not to underestimate McConnell.) The LA Times also made a splash yesterday when it reported that Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, was “leaning toward” voting to acquit the president, but it changed its headline after Feinstein tweeted that the paper had “misunderstood” her comments. Elsewhere online, impeachment has underscored the extent to which Matt Drudge, once a Trump booster, seems to have soured on the president. For CJR, Bob Norman went in search of Drudge, and some answers.
  • Trump himself was distracted—or should we say distracting—yesterday. The president unveiled his long-awaited (and, in many quarters, ridiculed) “peace plan” for the Middle East at a White House ceremony with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and no Palestinian representatives. Netanyahu has domestic problems of his own: he’s currently under indictment on charges related to his dealings with media companies. (For more details, read Ruth Margalit in CJR.) Yesterday, he withdrew his request for immunity from prosecution after it became clear that Israel’s Parliament would reject it.
  • Ben Smith is stepping down as editor in chief of BuzzFeed News to become the Times’s media columnist. Smith—who oversaw a succession of huge stories at BuzzFeed, including its controversial reporting on the Steele dossier and the Mueller probe—will succeed Jim Rutenberg, who is now a “writer at large” for the Times. In other job news, Wesley Lowery is leaving the Post to help CBS launch a digital spinoff of 60 Minutes.
  • Facebook has some job news, too: the company is hiring Jennifer Williams, a former Fox producer who worked on Fox & Friends and other shows, to lead video strategy at Facebook News. (The move rankled many on the left.) Also yesterday, Facebook doled out $700,000 in grants to local news organizations. Axios’s Sara Fischer has more.
  • On Monday, a segment on Don Lemon’s CNN show—which saw Trump supporters mocked as “the credulous boomer rube demo”—enraged the right; the GOP already cut it into an ad. But the Post’s Eugene Scott argues that such segments “can be found almost nightly on Fox News,” whose guests “endlessly mock and disrespect” liberals.
  • Last week, The Atlantic published a recent speech in which George Packer said good writing is being lost to identity politics and a fear of the “mob.” The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu took issue with the speech; what Packer really opposes, Nwanevu says, is “allowing a sense of moral clarity to govern the ways writers engage with each other.”
  • For The Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal explores the “viral Twitter threads, context-free videos, and even conspiracy theories” that are fueling panic about the coronavirus. Elsewhere, China demanded an apology from Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, after it ran a cartoon replacing the stars on the Chinese flag with coronavirus particles.
  • And Xana Antunes—who edited the New York Post, then held leadership roles at Fortune, Crain’s, CNBC, and Quartz—has died. She was 55. The New York Post and Quartz both have remembrances.

ICYMI: Why did Matt Drudge turn on Donald Trump?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.