Why Did the Washington Post Suspend a Reporter After She Tweeted About Kobe Bryant's Rape Allegation?

The loss of Kobe Bryant, 41, as well as that of eight other people in a helicopter crash on Sunday night, is horrifying beyond any conceivable definition of the word. Also lost in the crash was Bryant’s daughter Gianna, a promising basketball star who was only 13 years old, leaving his wife Vanessa — who had been with Bryant since she was 17 — to raise three children, including their infant daughter, alone. Orange County baseball coach John Altobelli and his wife and teenage daughter Alyssa, pilot Ara Zobayan, mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester, and basketball coach Christina Mauser were also reported lost in the crash.

But the loss of Bryant, one of the best and most beloved basketball players in history, was what left many glued to their phones and TV screens on Sunday night, hoping to make sense of a loss that didn’t make a lot of sense at all. In the wake of the tragedy, as the in memoriams that poured in, a number of media figures alluded to one of the darker aspects of Bryant’s legacy: a widely publicized rape allegation from 2003, which culminated in Bryant being charged with sexual assault and false imprisonment. (The charges were dropped when the victim, who had been slandered in the press for months, refused to testify in court.) The ensuing backlash was vociferous and fierce — not just from Twitter, but, in the case of one news reporter, from her own employer.

Yesterday, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story about the rape allegations. The story recounts, in excruciating detail, the accuser’s version of events of what happened the night of June 30th at the Lodge and Spa at Coridellera in Colorado, where she worked as a hotel desk clerk. According to her version of events, after Bryant, then 24, invited her into his hotel room, where the two shared a consensual kiss. After that point, she told police, he allegedly barred her from leaving the room, held her by the neck and forced her to have sex with him, then told her not to tell anybody. A subsequent medical examination at a hospital in Colorado found that the victim had multiple lacerations in the vaginal area that were “consistent with perpetuating genital trauma….not consistent with consensual sex,” and that Bryant’s T-shirt had blood spots around the waistline that matched the victim’s DNA.

During interviews with police, the story goes on to mention, Bryant claimed that the sex was consensual, disputed police officer’s characterization that the victim was an “attractive” woman, and threw a semen-covered T-shirt (where he claimed to have ejaculated during the encounter) at a cop when he requested it as evidence. At a subsequent press conference, however, he was much more sanguine, apologizing to the woman and stating, “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.” (Depending on who you asked, the statement was later viewed as both a laudatory example of an apology from a man to an alleged victim and/or a partial admission of guilt.)

In her tweet, Sonmez did not recount any of the allegations, merely tweeting the article without context. In a follow-up tweet, which was screengrabbed by independent journalist Matthew Keys, she said that she had received death threats following her tweets, urging people to read the article. “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she wrote. Another tweet included a screenshot of an email she had received containing death threats and abuse, which showed the full names of the sender. “Piece of shit. Go fuck yourself. Cunt,” the email said. She tweeted the email to underscore “the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.”

Mediaite later reported that the Washington Post had suspended Sonmez for her tweets, though there are conflicting interpretations as to how and why this happened. Keys quoted an anonymous Washington Post reporter stating that Sonmez was suspended not for tweeting the  Daily Beast link, but for posting an unredacted version of a screengrab of the harassing emails to her which showed the sender’s full name. In a statement to Rolling Stone, managing editor Tracy Grant did not offer much clarification. “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.“ In an interview with Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, Sonmez said that she alerted her highers-up to the death threats she had been receiving out of fear for her life, only to be told to delete the tweets. According to Sonmez, Grant sent her an email saying the tweets didn’t “pertain” to the reporter’s “coverage area” and that “your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.”

Because a spokesperson for the Washington Post refused to address any follow-up questions, it’s unclear, exactly, what part of The Post’s social media policy Sonmez violated with her (now-deleted) tweets. There’s nothing in the publicly available portions of the Washington Post’s social media handbook prohibiting employees from tweeting about subjects outside their coverage area, or from tweeting the full names of those sending them explicit verbal abuse. Further, while the handbook prohibits Washington Post employees from tweeting anything “that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism,” it’s baffling why Sonmez would be accused of “undermin[ing] the work of her colleagues” or making it hard for others to do their work, for tweeting a link to a story that her own publication didn’t even publish. It’s even more baffling that she’d be accused of displaying “bias or favoritism” for speaking out about the abuse she faced for tweeting said link, unless the bias in question was one against people who call journalists “cunts” for tweeting links to other people’s stories.

It’s worth noting that the Washington Post‘s application of its social media policy seems to be haphazardly applied at best, with the publication last summer declining to discipline a reporter for fomenting Epstein conspiracy theories with a tweet that a journalism ethics professor referred to as “inadvisable.” It’s also very much worth noting that the Washington Post has received intense criticism for historically displaying “bias or favoritism” in its own coverage of Bryant specifically. In 2018, the paper was lambasted for publishing a glowing profile of Bryant that, among other things, downplayed the sexual assault case by claiming he created his persona “the Black Mamba” in response to the allegation. “When Bryant returned to the court, the wholesome young athlete was gone. In his place was a man who could no longer convincingly portray innocence, and Bryant says he felt free to reveal the darkness that had always lurked inside him,” WaPo’s Kent Babb writes. “Creating an alternate persona, he says now, was the only way he could mentally move beyond the events of Colorado.”

The profile was criticized for being “stuffed to the gills with utter lunacy, somehow both the goofiest and most unsettling profile of an athlete I’ve ever read,” the Daily Beast’s Corbin Smith wrote. Earlier that year, Bryant had won an Oscar for his documentary short “Dear Basketball,” which had reinvigorated the debate surrounding the 2003 allegation and raised questions of whether his reputation deserved to be rehabilitated. Sonmez does not appear to make mention of the WaPo profile or the backlash to it in her tweets, but according to WaPo staffers who spoke with Rolling Stone, there was internal criticism within the newsroom after Bryant visited the office in October 2018, where he was given a tour and a warm reception. (Neither the Washington Post nor the union representing WaPo staffers immediately responded to this claim.)

In the wake of Bryant’s death, Sonmez is far from the only journalist who has been threatened or harassed for bringing up the sexual assault claim against Bryant, even in the most milquetoast possible way. Author Roxane Gay was also subject to a massive Twitter pile-on when she tweeted the following (objectively both empathetic and completely reasonable) sentiment: “There are going to be a lot of complicated reactions to Kobe Bryant’s death but I feel all the sympathy in the world for Vanessa Bryant and their four [sic] daughters. 41 is so young. And he had a spectacular professional career.”

And most obituaries of Bryant seem to be anticipating the backlash to acknowledging this area of his life, skirting the problem by reducing it to an aside or failing to mention it altogether. The headline to a widely circulated New York Times piece by Marc Stein refers to Bryant’s “Brilliant and Complicated Legacy,” implying that the complications are due in large part to the fallout from the 2003 sexual assault allegation. But the nearly 1,500-word piece largely makes the argument that his “uber-competitiveness,” flamboyant style, and hyper-driven nature complicated his legacy, not the internationally publicized sexual assault allegation to which only a paragraph is devoted.

No man is the sum of his parts, and the same can be said of Kobe Bryant. As the remembrances from his former teammates have suggested, he was a fiercely devoted friend and father to his four daughters, and spent the last years of his life serving as a mentor to many young players, particularly in the field of women’s basketball, which has historically been ignored by those in the NBA. The fact that his daughter Gianna, who also tragically perished in the crash, showed a great deal of promise as a basketball player likely played a role in his passion for the sport: As the WNBA tweeted, “Gigi was the future of the WNBA. Watching her play or sit courtside, you just knew it. Kobe was the strongest ambassador for [women’s basketball]. We called him ‘Future WNBA Commissioner’ on mic all the time.”

The tragic impact of his loss — not just to his wife Vanessa and his three remaining daughters, but to the game as a whole — cannot be overstated. But that also does not mean that, while we celebrate and mourn the life of a man and his contributions, the damage he may have wrought on at least one person’s life as revealed in publicly available court documents should be relegated to the footnotes of history, simply because the backlash may be too great, or the implications too complicated or dark for some of his fans to reckon with. Regardless of what those on social media may want us to believe, we live in a world where people and their sprawling, often contradictory truths cannot be flattened to simple and elegant narratives, where appraisal of a public figure’s life and work is not necessarily antithetical to  mourning alongside his loved ones. And as his family does the heartbreaking and tragic work of making sense of their unfathomable loss, journalistic institutions must also do the work of grappling with the brilliant, actually complicated legacy of the man himself.

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