Washington Post’s Kobe Bryant Tweet Mess Just Got Worse—Somehow

Lloyd Grove

Washington Post national political reporter Felicia Sonmez—fearing for her safety and hiding out in an undisclosed location Tuesday night after being targeted by ugly tweets, obscene emails and death threats—has been told she can return to work.

But she’s hardly overjoyed.

Amid widespread condemnation from fellow journalists of The Post’s suspension of Sonmez over her tweets Sunday noting Kobe Bryant’s long-ago rape case—hours after the 41-year-old basketball great was killed in a helicopter crash, prompting nationwide mourning—the newspaper’s management reinstated her on Tuesday.

But in a statement released by the Washington Post Newspaper Guild, which represents many of the paper’s journalists, including around 350 who signed an open letter blasting the suspension to Managing Editor Tracy Grant and Executive Editor Marty Baron, Sonmez said: “I believe that Washington Post readers and employees, including myself, deserve to hear directly from Marty Baron on the newspaper’s handling of this matter.”

In October 2018, Baron, along with many staffers, warmly greeted Bryant on a visit to the Post newsroom--a visit that provoked expressions of concern among some female employees, according to sources, because of the 2003 rape allegation.

Citing a censorious email that Baron sent her on Sunday—“Felicia,” he wrote. “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this”—Sonmez added: “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.’

“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.”

WaPo Union Condemns Management for Suspending Reporter Over Kobe Tweet

Earlier Tuesday, Tracy Grant, The Post’s managing editor for staff development and standards, issued a statement that expressed grudging “regret” for her Sunday night press release that disparaged Sonmez for “poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

“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,” Grant said. “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”

When an anxious Sonmez told Grant on Sunday about the threatening tweets and emails, including the online posting of her home address, the editor ordered her to delete the tweets and suggested she spend the night at a friend’s house or else decamp to a hotel, according to The New York Times.

As of Tuesday, however, The Post had provided Sonmez with a security detail and agreed to pay for her stay in a hotel, according to sources. 

Reached by phone, Sonmez declined to comment further and Baron didn’t respond to several questions in an email from The Daily Beast, including: Does the newspaper’s management only regret making a personnel matter public or does it also regret suspending Sonmez? Did Baron approve the decision to put Sonmez on “administrative leave”? And what caused the apparent change of heart?

“I hope Washington Post newsroom leaders will not only prioritize their employees' safety in the face of threats of physical harm but also ensure that no journalist will be punished for speaking the truth,” Sonmez said in her statement.

The newsroom union, meanwhile, said about Sonmez’s reinstatement:

“While this is a welcome development, The Washington Post Newspaper Guild is disappointed that The Post’s statement did not include an apology to Felicia. We remain concerned that The Post did not take swift action to provide her with protection and support. We urge the company to prioritize employee safety above all else.”

Meanwhile, sources told The Daily Beast about Kobe Bryant’s triumphant October 2018 visit to The Post’s newsroom, where he was warmly greeted by various reporters and editors, including Baron—which caused concern among several female staffers because of the 2003 rape allegation in which a then-19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado accused Bryant of sexually assaulting her. A criminal investigation resulted in no charges, and Bryant entered into a settlement agreement with the young woman.

In November 2018—a week after Bryant’s newsroom tour—The Post published an admiring profile of the celebrity-athlete who was aspiring to become a storyteller for Hollywood. A Daily Beast columnist memorialized The Post’s profile as “totally insane,” with the subhead: “The award-winning newspaper somehow found a way to romanticize the NBA legend’s rape allegation, among other things.”

The article noted: “Kobe didn’t make stories about himself: he works with advertising and PR companies to weave lies while his victim is silenced by an NDA, fabricates stupid tall tales about jumping over cars and his relationship to snakes, as well as his own basketball prowess. The world of sports indulged him in his horseshit, and continues to do so. Hopefully Hollywood won’t make the same mistake.”

—With additional reporting by Adam Rawnsley.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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