Fracas at Washington Post leads to firing of reporter

June 10, 2022 • 9:15 am

Three days ago I reported that Washington Post journalist David Weigel was suspended by the paper for a month for retweeting this dubious and offensive joke:

Even if he returns, I suspect his life at the paper will be forever hard. But since Wiegel apologized for this and deleted the tweet, my view was that a stiff talking-to but his editors and a warning that this must never be repeated would suffice for his punishment. (Surprisingly, in my old age I’m getting less punitive. Maybe it’s my belief in the absence of free will!) But readers disagreed with me, saying Weigel should have been fired, and so be it.

Now, however, the controversy has blossomed further, this time resulting in the outright firing of another Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez. Sonmez not only attacked Weigel, but did worse: she repeatedly attacked The Washington Post despite other reporters asking her to stop. The summary is in this NY Times article (click to read), but you can also read about it on CNN.

 

Here’s what happened to her:

Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post who in recent days has been at the center of a debate over the organization’s social media policies and the culture of the newsroom, was fired on Thursday, according to three people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

Ms. Sonmez was fired over email on Thursday afternoon, according to one of the people. In an emailed termination letter, which was viewed by The New York Times, Ms. Sonmez was told that The Post was ending her employment, effective immediately, “for misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your co-workers online and violating The Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.”

The email, from Wayne Connell, the Post’s chief human resources officer, also said Ms. Sonmez’s “public attempts to question the motives of your co-journalists” undermined The Post’s reputation.

“We cannot allow you to continue to work as a journalist representing The Washington Post,” the letter said.

That’s pretty harsh! What did she do? Bari Weiss summarized it a few days ago this way:

His colleague, Felicia Sonmez, had seized on the tweet, starting a public shaming of Weigel as a sexist. She’s spent the past few days reposting others calling her a heroslamming one colleague who was silly enough to defend Weigel; posting about that colleague and tagging the bosses. Oh, and throwing editors under the bus (repeatedly).

But Sonmez has a history with the Post, and persisted with criticisms of Weigel and the paper even after Weigel was suspended.  This is from her Wikipedia bio:

While a national political reporter for The Washington Post in January 2020, Sonmez was placed on administrative leave after tweeting about the sexual assault charge against Kobe Bryant shortly after his death. The Post ultimately decided she did not violate its social media policy.

Sonmez again drew attention in July 2021 for suing The Washington Post, alleging that the paper had discriminated against her by blocking her from covering sexual assault after she came forward as a survivor. The suit was dismissed.

An explanation at the NYT:

Ms. Sonmez, a national political reporter, sued the paper and several top editors last year, saying they had discriminated against her by barring her from covering stories about sexual assault after she had publicly identified herself as a victim of assault. The case was dismissed in March, with the judge noting that The Post had attributed the coverage bans not to her being a victim of sexual assault but to concerns that her public statements had created an appearance of bias. Ms. Sonmez’s lawyer at the time said she planned to appeal.

And Sonmez persisted attacking the paper after l’affaire Weigel (she was the first to put up Weigel’s retweet on both Twitter and her paper’s internal communication.) Ms. Sonmez then got into a Twitter disagreement with Jose A. Del Real, a reporter who acknowledged Mr. Weigel’s tweet was “unacceptable” but admonished Ms. Sonmez for “rallying the internet to attack” Mr. Weigel. Mr. Del Real later sent several tweets regarding an “unrelenting series of attacks” against him, and Ms. Sonmez questioned why The Post had not done anything to reprimand him for his tweets about her, including one that said she had engaged in “repeated and targeted public harassment of a colleague.”

In the following days, Ms. Sonmez wrote numerous posts on Twitter about the newsroom culture at The Post and what she said was the uneven way its social media policy was applied to different reporters. At times she jousted with fellow journalists at The Post on Twitter.

Many in the newsroom supported Ms. Sonmez throughout her lawsuit and were grateful to her for her advocacy for sexual abuse victims, according to two current Post employees, but the sentiment began to shift this week as she continued to tweet about The Post.

Some felt Ms. Sonmez was hurting the institution and disagreed with her use of public forums to criticize co-workers, the people said.

Here are the (mostly) liberal women of the view criticizing Sonmez:

Clearly the paper agreed with the latter, and couldn’t let one of its journalists malign the paper and her fellow reporters repeatedly. They won’t comment on the firing, and neither will Sonmez, but if you want examples of what Sonmez said, Nellie Bowles gives some links:

The week wore on, and more Post reporters were getting involved, sending complaints on social media and in staff-wide email blasts. As the instigator—a woman named Felicia Sonmez—started fresh rants each day, it began to get sad. One Post staffer (a Felicia ally) scrolled to see who “liked” the Tweet of another staffer (a Felicia critic)—he scanned nearly 5,000 names to find four Post reporters who liked the critic’s Tweet. That’s just sad. Even the women of The View turned on Felicia Sonmez and her cause.

CNN gives more details about the persistence of Sonmez:

In her public comments Sonmez had been highly critical of The Post’s leadership, including Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, along with many of her colleagues.

At times, some of her colleagues went on Twitter to plead with Sonmez to stop attacking The Post on social media.

Jose A. Del Real, a reporter at The Post, responded on Twitter Saturday to Sonmez’s initial tweet. Del Real said Weigel’s tweet was “terrible and unacceptable.”

“But,” he added, “rallying the internet to attack him for a mistake he made doesn’t actually solve anything. We all mess up in some way or another. There is such a thing as challenging with compassion.”

Sonmez responded, saying that “calling out sexism isn’t ‘cruelty,'” but something that is “absolutely necessary.”

Buzbee tried twice to quell the public infighting through statements, including a stern memo issued to employees on Tuesday. In that memo, Buzbee, “in the strongest of terms,” outlined rules that all staffers are expected to follow.

“We do not tolerate colleagues attacking colleagues either face to face or online,” Buzbee wrote. “Respect for others is critical to any civil society, including our newsroom.”

But that memo failed to put an end to the affair.

Just hours after Buzbee issued her memo, Sonmez tweeted a screen grab showing she was still blocked on Twitter by Del Real. And she retweeted another user mocking some of her colleagues who had joined together to send tweets expressing pride about working at The Post.

Reporter Lisa Rein tweeted at Sonmez that night, writing, “Please stop.”

Sonmez replied and asked, “Do you have any idea of the torrent of abuse I’m facing right now?”

As recent as Thursday, Sonmez was still tweeting lengthy threads critical of The Post.

In her Thursday thread, Sonmez argued that the colleagues of hers who publicly defended The Post this week are white and among the most highly paid in the newsroom.

“It is a great workplace *for them*,” she wrote.

Sonmez questioned in the thread whether The Post’s institutional framework was working for “everyone else.”

On top of attacking her fellow reporters on social media, then, Sonmez accused the paper of bigotry, saying that those who defended the paper just happened to be white (I guess she identifies herself as “Latine”), though only a few reporters defended her. Sonmez’s behavior seems a bit unhinged, and by going public against her paper, Sonmez left the Post little choice. Even I, a free-speech defender who would argue that Sonmez has the right to say what she wants on public media, cannot argue that the paper must keep her on whatever she says, including accusing it of being racist. This is one of the consequences of public speech: you are not free of disapprobation by your employer (though if it’s a university or the government that may be illegal, an is often unwarranted).

But what about Weigel? Is there hypocrisy here in merely suspending him but firing Sonmez? I don’t think so. There’s a world of difference between retweeting a bad-taste joke that singles out no person or institution on one hand and repeatedly attacking your employer on the other.  I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Sonmez, and, of course, she never apologized for going after her colleagues, or accusing them of racism merely for criticizing her.

Perhaps the main entry for Sonmez on Wikipedia explains her downfall:

Felicia Sonmez is an American journalist. A political reporter, she is known for her social media activity.

If you’re a reporter, you want to be known for your reporting, not for your social media activity. If I were a reporter, I would either not have a Twitter account or restrict my tweets to highlighting my reporting. Sure, Sonmez could give personal opinion, with the caveat that those opinions were hers and not the Post‘s. But repeated criticism of your employer on Twitter, while no violation of free speech, does carry the risk that your employer will take umbrage. Fortunately, the University of Chicago has a strict policy against reprisal, and I don’t engage in Twitter battles anyway.

Were Hitchens alive, perhaps he’d pronounce that “social media poisons everything.”

Sonmez (from CNN)

40 thoughts on “Fracas at Washington Post leads to firing of reporter

  1. One has to see the torrent of tweets she vomited up to really get a sense of just how unhinged she increasingly seemed. It really is no wonder that even the few people initially supporting her started to back away, as one would from a crazy person ranting in increasingly worrisome fashion. She just went off and wouldn’t stop for days. It was…kind of nuts to watch in real time.

  2. (Surprisingly, in my old age I’m getting less punitive. Maybe it’s my belief in the absence of free will!)

    Or maybe it’s the ever-increasing exposure to the vicissitudes of human frailty.

  3. … my view was that a stiff talking-to bu his editors and a warning that this must never be repeated would suffice for his punishment. (Surprisingly, in my old age I’m getting less punitive. …)

    I consider that even a talking-to from his bosses was innapropriate (and the suspension excessive). His faux pas was on his personal Twitter feed, it wasn’t about work and it wasn’t in the workplace. Sonmez could have avoided being offended by the Tweet by the simple expedient of not following him on Twitter. Workplace jurisdiction over our speech should end in the workplace.

    On the other hand, Sonmez should indeed have been fired. Her activity was all about her workplace and work colleagues and was creating a hostile environment in that workplace.

    1. A polite talking-to would suffice. Yes, it was outside of work but it’s a media company and they’ll care when you use other media to make jokes that some might find distasteful.

      1. We need to establish the principle that we all have a right to a personal life that is distinct from our work, and that voicing opinions should be a protected part of that.

  4. I have no sympathy for Sonmez. Of course, employees are perfectly entitled to use social media, but employers are also similarly entitled to have a policy requiring their staff not to bring them into disrepute. If Sonmez had been tweeting about matters unrelated to the Post and its staff, and with a disclaimer saying that the views expressed were personal and unconnected with the news outlet, then she would have had more leeway. But the specifics in this case are very much against her – after all, she was politely told to desist and ignored the instruction to do so.

  5. Those who don’t think Weigel should be fired mostly stayed silent because they have better things to do than stand up for a really good reporter who made a very small mistake.

  6. She could have gone to interesting aspects of ‘The Joke’. Is Bipolar disease more common in females than males? (Yes, but only moderately so. BPII as well as BPI -to a lesser degree-, between 10 and 30% more common). Why is it that many, number unknown, BD woman are more often mis-diagnosed as Unipolar disease (major depressive disease, MDD)? Why do women more often get BD later in life than men?
    All interesting questions and there are many more.
    As far as bisexuality goes, women are indeed more likely to have sexual relations with both sexes than men. That goes for both those identifying as heterosexual as well as those identifying as homosexual. I would not count ‘trans-women’ who feel entitled to have sex with females, unless they have sex with biological males too. Here too, she could have gone into some interesting questions.
    A joke in bad taste (still, I did chuckle), but with a little bit of truth in it.
    She could have made the most of it, instead of ranting.

    1. You put more effort into analyzing this sexist tweet in order to justify it than the person who originated it. I don’t think people should be ashamed for chuckling at a sexist joke. But rather than putting your time and effort into framing a justification, I suggest you put the same time and effort into understanding why it is sexist and why such put-downs hurt women.

      1. I just wanted to point out that even a bad taste, obviously sexist joke could give a good journalist a great excuse to go into the subjects unfairly ridiculed (BD is really no joke) in “the Joke”. She could have grabbed the opportunity instead of ranting.
        I don’t think it is pertinent whether it ‘hurts’ women, I think that BD hurts women (and men, for that matter) much more. And I also wonder the underlying causes of females having way more bisexual contacts than males. Those causes might turn out to be quite hurtful too.

      2. I enjoy sexist jokes against both men and women. I enjoy Holocaust jokes, despite having multiple ancestors who died in it. I enjoy jokes about bi-polar disorder, despite it nearly destroying my life on multiple occasions.

        Why? Because I enjoy offensive humor, and I’d venture to say that most people do, to some extent or another. It’s cathartic. It feels good to laugh at things we “shouldn’t” laugh at.

        Thank goodness some people are still carrying the standard of offensive humor for the rest of us!!

        1. My sentiments exactly! And I”ll bet a lot of people do too! Remember the wonderful Polish jokes? (they were applicable to other ethnic groups as well). Two Polish pilots land a plane in Germany beyond the runway, just short of an obstacle. Pilot #1: Wow, they really built their runways so short.! Pilot #2: Yeah, but look how wide they are!

          1. The Poles themselves told some great ones during the Warsaw Pact era.
            An elderly Polish peasant lady made the trek in from the country to pay the taxes on her little farm. When her position in the queue finally got her to the wicket of the tax office she noticed a framed photo of a medal-bedecked military officer on the wall above the petty bureaucrat.
            “Who’s that shithead supposed to be?”she demanded.
            “Comrade Madam, not so loud,” the bureaucrat admonished her. “That’s Marshall Pilsudski. He got rid of the Germans for us.”
            “Feh!” The old lady spat on the floor. “He should come back, maybe get rid of the Russians for us!”

        2. All well and good, so long as comedians don’t feel entitled to be offended should offensive humor be hurled back at them.

      3. Since the edit function once again eludes me, I’ll also add that I don’t think sexist jokes “hurt women.” An offensive joke doesn’t hurt the target (excepting hurt feelings from some individuals, which are inevitable if you’re telling any joke above a dad joke) unless its content is also widely belibisexuality, true. I sincerely doubt that even 5% of people think that every woman is either bisexual, bipolar, or both, and I’m 100% certain that this joke won’t make anybody think, “hey, maybe he’s right! Now that I really give it some thought, all women are either one or the other.”

  7. I just noticed her picture. Does she look that white in all of her pictures? If so, that’s what her crowd would call “white” or, at the very least, “white passing.” As such, she would not be entitled to pontificate on her oppression as a POC. But she also seems like the kind of person for whom social justice is optimized to be used as a superweapon for anything she wants (including self-aggrandizement and the destruction of others).

    1. What, is Sonmez identifying as POC? In South Africa she would be considered lily-white, if we go on the photograph.
      Note, I do agree with Rebecca Tuvel that if you can identify as any particular ‘gender’, you should also be able to identify as any particular ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’.

      1. She’s certainly implying it. Her tweets heavily imply that the WaPo environment is difficult for her personally because of all the powerful white people (notice that’s the first aspect of the supposed conspirators she mentions in the tweet I linked above). She probably knows well enough that it would be taking a risk of backlash to outright say, “I’m being treated this way because I’m a woman of color,” but she can come as close to the line as possible.

        1. I mentioned that she would be considered lily-white in South Africa, not just because I live there. In South Africa there is quite some ‘expertise’ -grown by decades of experience- in the ‘race’ department, by all ‘races’ involved (if I’m allowed to make that observation).

          1. Yes, I’ve heard from black friends who emigrated from there that people of mixed race or lighter (but not white) skin are sort of the “middle class” in SA’s racial hierarchy, and the word “colored” is used for them (I believe there was also a discussion about this either here or on some other website I read). Meanwhile, darker black people are considered the lowest class. They’ve also told me that, despite the dismantling Apartheid, this discrimination continues in many segments of SA society to this day.

            I’ve only ever known one white person from SA, a girl with whom I had a brief fling. She was from a very wealthy family and, as such, largely removed from the racial politics, as being rich and white largely shielded her from the harsh realities of the larger populace as a child, and she moved to the US when she was about twelve years old (if I remember correctly). So, I’m curious to hear about your own perspective and experiences, whatever your race/genetic profile. Of course feel free to not respond if you would rather not discuss this!

  8. “Sonmez accused the paper of bigotry, saying that those who defended the paper just happened to be white.” Please! The marginalized group in question should be referred to as “whitex”. We must also correct Andrew Sullivan’s aphorism that we are all on campus now. The behavior of Ms. Sonmez demonstrates that, at least at WaPo, we are all in middle school.

  9. I didn’t participate in the initial discussion re: bi joke. His punishment sounds pretty severe. However, a news organization with social media presence probably has good reason to be fierce In reining in their reporters, so I will accept their judgement on that. Perhaps being a journalist means that public posts on social media are in no way private or personal. Journalist are supposed to be objective, so expressing copious opinions (or retweeting dumb stuff) on twitter seems counter productive for your reputation. Regarding Sonmez, her behavior just sounds very self-destructive. She had a moment of fame due to her post on Bryant, which I supported at the time. She has since become confused about her career as a journalist vs.her personal tweeting. Tweeting did nothing to change the issues she had with Wa Po, it only hurt her career.

  10. Will Rogers said it best…. “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Weigel’s tweet was dumb, but Sonmez just couldn’t stop digging. It does seem totally self-destructive.

    1. I don’t know about self-destructive. If you’re a journalist on tw**ter, you’ve seen shenanigans like this often rocket other journalists and activists to celebrity, gaining them huge followings and increasing power. I have a feeling she had no idea that this would backfire. She likely thought she was planting her flag and that an army of people — blue check journalists and activists included — would be marching alongside her and shouting her name from the metaphorical social media rooftops.

      And it’s entirely possible that this still may work out this way in the long run. The mainstream and/oir progressive tw**ter might decide to close ranks around her, start publishing articles and tweeting about her unfair treatment, and she’ll end up getting hired by another publication, consulting firm, or think tank with significantly more promotion given to her. We’ll have to wait and see.

  11. I am encouraged by this. I wouldn’t want to see anyone fired, but I would rather it be the woke colleague who tries to cash in on the ‘error’ (if it was such) of a journalist who made an ill-considered tweet, than the tweeter himself. This whole business of turning on a colleague as soon as you see a chance reminds me of a feeding frenzy rather than good collegial relationships. I hope she will be able to reflect upon that.

      1. I’m aware of that. I consider them white Asians, along with several other people in the region. Of course, there is a lot of weird dynamic about who is considered white and who isn’t, from the Irish to the Italians to whomever else.

        But my question is why she would identify herself as ‘latine‘ specifically, and not non-white.

  12. Jesus, it was a silly joke. It doesn’t mean he believes that is a universal truth. Like women don’t make them about men and often more savagely. His career shouldn’t be ruined and acting like an unhinged child and going on and on about it is ridiculous.

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