The Washington Post's Troll Playbook Isn't Just Outdated, It's Malicious [UPDATED]

The Washington Post's Troll Playbook Isn't Just Outdated, It's Malicious [UPDATED]

Journalist Felicia Sonmez was suspended from the Washington Post Sunday for nebulous reasons, allegedly stemming from her Twitter activity following the death of NBA giant Kobe Bryant. Hours after news broke that Bryant died in a helicopter crash—which killed eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter—Sonmez tweeted a link to a Daily Beast article, which documented details of the 2003 rape accusation against him that temporarily derailed his career. Sonmez was immediately inundated with a stream of death threats, and her employer saw it fit to punish her for causing a scene instead of helping her when trolls were posting around her home address.

“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 [more than three years ago, and not by me,” Sonmez wrote in a follow-up tweet. She subsequently posted a screenshot exemplifying the abuse she received, which included the names attached to the email addresses of those sending her hate mail.

According to the Erik Wemple, the Post’s media blogger, Sonmez contacted The Post’s managing editor, Tracy Grant, and her editor, Peter Wallsten, to let them know that she was receiving threats, which included someone posting her address (she stayed at a hotel Sunday night). Grant told her to delete the tweets. Sonmez didn’t delete the tweets immediately, as she was worried about the threats that were rolling in. Grant nudged her again, saying that refusing to delete the tweets would be “in violation of a directive from a managing editor.” She deleted the tweets, but the abuse didn’t stop. A brief peek at her latest, non-Kobe related tweet showed that the hate simply migrated to her more recent posts.

In a phone call with Grant later that day, Sonmez was told that she was being placed on administrative leave. According to the Wemple blog, in an email, Grant indicated that Sonmez’s suspension was due to her tweeting about topics outside of her beat, writing that her “behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.” Jezebel reached out to Sonmez and Grant and will update when we hear back.

Journalists tweet about everything from their beat to what they’re binge-watching—part of their value is tied up in attracting an audience that is curious about their insight—and that an editor tried to pass off Sonmez’s suspension as tied to tweeting about non-work-related content is laughable. And as Wemple noted in his screed against his employer’s decision to suspend Sonmez, if this were a policy that was actually enforced, “the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave.”

That Washington Post either doesn’t have a playbook or only reserves it for people who rock the boat in a manner they prefer.

To throw Sonmez under the bus while she receives an avalanche of death threats is endlessly bleak. It’s 2020, a post-gamergate mediascape where journalists routinely put themselves on whitelists to avoid getting doxxed with ease. Anyone who employs people who are required to be very online—especially marginalized people, especially women, especially non-white women—should have a playbook for this by now, one that they’re ready to implement at the drop of a hat. That Washington Post either doesn’t have a playbook or only reserves it for people who rock the boat in a manner they prefer.

In a statement defending Sonmez on Monday, the Washington Post Guild demanded that Post management provide security and other safety measures for Sonmez in addition to a reversal of her suspension. On Tuesday, the Post agreed to pay for Sonmez’s hotel expenses and security detail, but Sonmez’s suspension has held firm.

“I would argue that not ignoring a matter of public record is the way to go and making survivors feel seen and heard helps Washington Post journalists rather than making our jobs harder,” Sonmez told Wemple. “We are more able to do our jobs because we’ve demonstrated to those survivors that we’re worthy of their trust… I’m a little confused. If The Post is arguing that letting those survivors feel seen makes other colleagues’ jobs harder, I’d appreciate an explanation.”

And the Kobe tweet wasn’t an isolated incident. The Washington Post Guild’s statement revealed that the Post has a history of chastising Sonmez for her frankness in discussing her own alleged sexual assault, emphasis ours:

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. Instead, management issued a warning letter against Felicia for violating The Post’s vague and inconsistently enforced social media guidelines.

One article that the Guild statement is likely referring to is Emily Yoffe’s 2019 article for Reason about Jonathan Kaiman, the former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times who resigned in 2018 after Sonmez and law student Laura Tucker publicly accused Kaiman of sexual misconduct. Former Jezebel Senior Reporter Anna Merlan interviewed Sonmez in about the accusations made against Kaiman as well as writer Yoffe’s regressive retelling. Yoffe, predictably, painted Kaiman as a victim and a model of an overzealous MeToo movement, which supposedly spurs women to erase a night of bad sex by alleging assault.

Sonmez responded to Yoffe’s article with a lengthy Twitter thread. It’s unclear if this response was what prompted the Post’s warning letter, but given the Post’s negative response to Sonmez so much as defending herself from death threats over the weekend, I assume that Post management wouldn’t have cared for Sonmez’s clarifying her behavior in response to Yoffe. That the Post would wring their hands or employ punitive measures toward employees for speaking up about sexual assault suggests a complete breakdown of trust between management and its employees—not to mention a misunderstanding of the delicacies of maintaining a public, online presence, like Sonmez does as a requirement of her job.

In her piece, Merlan noted that Sonmez was clearly “trying to stay as even-handed and dispassionate as possible” when discussing Yoffe’s smear:

She declined, several times, to talk in detail about how it made her feel or whether she was concerned it would impact her job opportunities in the future. When I asked about all the mainstream journalists who’d tweeted admiringly about the piece, including Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens of the New York Times, she chose to focus on something else entirely: the amount of support she got for telling her story, and for requesting corrections to the piece.

Following Sonmez’s suspension, Merlan tweeted that Sonmez’s behavior tracked: “WaPo disciplines her for very little.”

On Monday, in a statement released to the media, Grant stated, that the suspension was an “administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy. The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

But if the incident displays poor judgment, it’s that of her employer. Sonmez has been let down repeatedly by management at the Washington Post, who are clearly more concerned about trending on Twitter than the physical safety or support of their journalists. That they haven’t already reversed the suspension is an embarrassment to the field. Democracy might “die in darkness,” as their motto asserts, but this Sonmez ordeal shows that publication’s integrity died in broad daylight.

Update, 5:43 p.m.: Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Washington Post, has released a statement announcing that, upon review, Sonmez’s Kobe Bryant tweets were not in violation of their social media policy after all. Her tweets appear to have only violated the unwritten Too Soon clause. The statement concludes, “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.” But do they regret ignoring death threats lobbed at their employee? Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Washington Post Embarrassing Itself.”

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