A Washington Post reporter’s suspension has been lifted after she was put on administrative leave for tweeting about Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case just hours after the NBA star was among the nine people reported dead in a fatal helicopter crash on Sunday in California.
‘Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality… even if the public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling.’
Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter, posted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” That tweet has since been taken down, as it attracted strong responses that called her “heartless” and “attention-seeking.”
And while her original Twitter TWTR, +1.95% post drew hundreds of shares and thousands of likes, the backlash against the tweet from grieving Bryant fans was just as vocal, with #FireFeliciaSonmez trending for a time on Sunday.
Sonmez wrote in a follow up tweet that 10,000 readers had flooded her work email with abusive comment and death threats.
“Well, THAT was eye-opening. 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,” she wrote.
“Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality,” she added, “even if the public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling. That folks are responding with rage & threats toward me (someone who didn’t even write the piece but found it well-reported) speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.”
These tweets have also been taken down, but live on in screenshots.
Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Washington Post, told MarketWatch in an emailed statement on Monday that Sonmez had been suspended pending an investigation into the online incident.
“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,” she wrote. “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”
But after backlash from readers and journalists, including the Washington Post Guild, Grant backpedaled in a statement tweeted by the Post’s vice president of communications early Tuesday evening. She called Sonmez’s tweet’s “ill-timed,” but determined that the reporter was “not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.” A Post spokeswoman confirmed to MarketWatch by email that the administration leave had been lifted.
Grant added in her statement that, “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”
Sonmez did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She revealed in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog that she had emailed Grant and her editor, Peter Wallsten, about the threats she was receiving — including someone who had posted her address, which led her to check into a hotel on Sunday night. She was ordered to delete the tweets. Then in a phone call with Grant, she was told that she was being placed on administrative leave, effective immediately. She was told that her tweets were problematic because they didn’t “pertain” to her “coverage area,” and that “your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.”
Wemple, the Washington Post’s media critic, had called the suspension “misguided” in his column on Monday afternoon, and the company’s guild — which represents about 1,000 employees — sent a letter to the paper’s management team supporting Sonmez. “Instead of protecting and supporting a reporter in the face of abuse, The Post placed her on administrative leave while newsroom leaders review whether she violated the social media policy,” the Guild wrote. “Felicia had to leave her home out of fear for her safety and has gotten insufficient guidance from the Post on how to protect herself.”
Here is the Guild statement in full:
Many other readers came to Sonmez’s defense on social media, as well.
Still, others celebrated Sonmez’s suspension.
It remains unclear which of the now-deleted tweets got Sonmez suspended. But one reportedly included a screenshot of her inbox, which highlighted the vulgar comments she was getting — and which revealed the purported full names of the senders.
“Her managers don’t care about the Daily Beast tweet,” a Post employee told independent journalist and blogger Matthew Keys at The Desk. “But there’s a concern that the screen shot (of her email inbox) might create some legal issues and could violate Twitter’s terms (of service).”
It should be noted that Keys was among those criticizing Sonmez on Twitter, including a post that called her posts “crass” and ended with, “Bye Felicia.”
The Daily Beast article that Sonmez tweeted recounted what was arguably the darkest episode of the late NBA All-Star’s career: being arrested on felony sexual assault charges in Colorado in 2003, when a 19-year-old hotel employee accused the Lakers’ player, then 25, of raping her.
Bryant — who was married and with a 5-month-old daughter — said that the sex was consensual. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2004 after the accuser decided not to testify. A civil suit brought by the accuser in August 2004 was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount on March 2, 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported.
And Bryant gave a public apology in 2005, as part of the settlement: “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,” his statement read. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
This article was originally published on Jan. 27, 2020, and has been updated with the administrative leave being lifted.