Home / General / The death of famous people should be handled in public fora with honesty, not uncritical reverence [UPDATED]

The death of famous people should be handled in public fora with honesty, not uncritical reverence [UPDATED]

Apr 8, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Lakers 110-102. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez has been suspended for a series of tweets sent after the death of Kobe Bryant, including an all-too-prescient one about how women who talk about sexual assault tend to get bullied into silence:

Initially, she tweeted out a link to a 2016 story from the Daily Beast about the case hours after Bryant’s death. Later, she tweeted about the apparent backlash she had received over the tweet. “Well, THAT was eye-opening,” she wrote, saying that 10,000 people had commented and emailed her with “abuse and death threats.” She noted that she did not write the story and that it’s more than three years old. “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she continued. 

Later, she went on to post a screenshot of her inbox, with one message to her reading: “Piece of fucking shit. Go fuck yourself. Cunt.”


“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. The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” said Tracy Grant, the managing editor of the Washington Post, in a statement, which does not provide a lot of clarity on the matter. 

The Daily Mail was first to report Sonmez’s suspension on Sunday evening and suggested the decision had been made because of her tweet linking to the Daily Beast story. However, reporter Matthew Keys later reported that it was instead tied to Sonmez’s inbox screenshot tweet, because it contained the full names of the people who had emailed her and could create legal issues or violate Twitter’s terms of service. 

A Post employee told Vox’s Peter Kafka that Sonmez wasn’t suspended because of one particular Bryant-related tweet but instead because of the totality of them. 

The most defensible version of events would be the Post suspending her for posting a screencap of her work inbox with the names (although not the email addresses) of people sending her emails with gendered abuse. She should probably not have done it, although I don’t think it’s close to a firable offense either. But since the Post’s statement (“tweets”) suggests that the other tweets played a material role in her suspension and they haven’t said otherwise or backed up the right of their reporters to link to relevant news articles in the wake of a famous person’s death, it’s worth noting that if the non-screencap tweets played any role in her suspension this is outrageous conduct on the part of the Post.

It is frankly baffling what “policy” Sonmez’s fist tweet could have violated. It can’t be that it mentioned it linked to a story about Bryant being credibly accused of sexual assault, getting the criminal case dropped at least in part by doxxing his accuser, and then reaching a civil settlement. You can also find the news that Bryant was accused of sexual assault in…the Washington Post‘s own obituary, published the same day:

Bryant’s NBA career was not without controversy. In 2003, a 19-year-old woman in Colorado accused him of sexual assault, although the charges were later dropped. The two parties later settled a civil suit.

So, what did Sonmez do wrong here, exactly? Did she need some throat-clearing about how he was a great basketball player before saying what she wanted to say, as if the Twitter dot com website would be starved of such content yesterday or anyone reading would be unaware of that fact? Should she have linked to a less detailed, more evasive account? Waited some arbitrary number of hours that wouldn’t have changed the reaction anyway? There is no remotely coherent justification for suspending her even in part for the non-sceencap tweets. There was nothing wrong with them at all. They told the truth. The Post capitulated to a mob, period.

This blog’s position on the dictum de mortuis nihil nisi bonum is well-known. But more to the point is that, when it comes to public figures in public fora, nobody really believes it. It is invoked selectively, to protect certain figures from honest criticism and to trivialize (usually less privileged) critics. When O.J. Simpson dies, virtually nobody is going to claim that it’s unacceptable to talk about anything but his football and acting careers for some unspecified time period. To believe that Bryant merits nothing but uncritical hagiography, even for some arbitrary number of hours or days after his tragic death, is essentially to say that alleged violence against women should go unspoken unless it rises to the level of murder. To state this argument is to refute it. Reporters and ordinary people alike can discuss negative as well as positive aspects of a famous person’s legacy when they pass away, and they’re not required to wait until nobody is paying attention to say the former.

…via Joe in comments, this in-house response by Erik Wemple is good:

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Sonmez says that on Sunday afternoon, she emailed Grant and her editor, Peter Wallsten, to alert them to the threats she’d received. “Just so they’d be aware that things were getting a little out of hand, I sent them links to my tweets,” she says. “Tracy wrote back a couple of hours later asking me to take down those tweets.” Sonmez reports that she was a “little delayed” in taking down the tweets, in part because she was concerned about the threats: Someone, she says, had posted her address.

Management continued to worry about the tweets, says Sonmez, noting that Grant sent her another message saying that if she didn’t delete them, she’d be “in violation of a directive from a managing editor.” She deleted the tweets, providing a victory for all those who’d attacked her for posting a perfectly fine news story.

Fearing for her safety at home, Sonmez checked into a hotel on Sunday night. In a phone call with Grant, she learned that she was being placed on administrative leave effective immediately. The Post’s concerns with the tweets, Grant had indicated in an email to Sonmez, were that they 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.”

A couple of thoughts about those objections: One, if journalists at The Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave. Two, the contention that sharing a link to a news article complicates the work of others requires supporting evidence. “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. We are more able to do our jobs because we’ve demonstrated to those survivors that we’re worthy of their trust,” says Sonmez. “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.”

This is frankly appalling behavior on the part of Sonmez’s editors — just flat-out allowing one of their reporters to be bullied and silenced for tweets that simply told the truth. Indeed, not only allowing but doing it themselves. (And nor does there seem to be any evidence for claims that a narrow concern about the screencaps was the only issue.) Democracy dies in something.

…this just keeps getting worse:

Ms. Sonmez received an email from The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, at 5:38 p.m., before she was told that she would be placed on leave. The reporter shared the three-sentence email with The New York Times.

“Felicia,” Mr. Baron wrote. “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

The text of Mr. Baron’s email was attached to a screen shot of Ms. Sonmez’s tweet linking to the Daily Beast article. A spokeswoman for The Post and Mr. Baron did not reply to requests for comment on the email.

Sonmez’s punishment was, to be clear, not based on protecting the privacy of internet trolls (which would also be a bad reason!) but about her tweeting out a relevant, well-reported news story. That’s it.

There was a recent Oscar-winning movie about a true story of norms of silence surrounding sexual violence ended up shielding more powerful abusers. Baron may want to watch it again!

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