Jake Tapper talks to Marty Baron on Felicia Sonmez. Jake Tapper talks to Marty Baron on Felicia Sonmez. (CNN.)

This story contains discussion of sexual assault. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673, or online at rainn.org.

One of the biggest challenges for media organizations in the last decade-plus has been developing policies covering individual reporters or commentators’ usage of social media. Other big challenges have included figuring out how to properly cover allegations of sexual assault and how to properly address the less-than-stellar parts of an obituary subject’s life.

All of that came to a head around Kobe Bryant’s death in a January 2020 helicopter crash. And that’s now come up again thanks to CNN’s Jake Tapper’s interview with former Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron Wednesday, which explores quite an array of questions about journalism and social media.

What exactly is at issue here? Well, less than an hour after the Associated Press confirmed the initial TMZ report of Bryant’s death, then-Post national political reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession,” about the 2003 sexual assault case against Bryant in Colorado.

In that case, criminal charges were eventually dropped after the accuser declined to testify. But a civil lawsuit was filed, and Bryant offered an apology and settled that lawsuit. Sonmez eventually deleted that tweet, but a screengrab of it was preserved by Mediaite’s Ken Meyer:

Sonmez’s tweet stood out amidst the many laudatory tributes to Bryant going around social media at that time. And it drew a lot of attention, both positive and negative. Some praised Sonmez for pointing out an important part of Bryant’s story that many weren’t emphasizing at that point. Others blasted not just her, but the Post overall, for bringing that up in that way and at that time.

Sonmez later defended that tweet with “any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling.” She also tweeted “Well, THAT was eye-opening. 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.” And she posted a screenshot of an email she had received that used offensive language, called her a lewd name and displayed the sender’s full name. She eventually deleted all of those tweets.

The paper put Sonmez on administrative leave while they investigated if she’d violated the paper’s social media policy, with reports specifically discussing her decision to show the sender’s name in the email she tweeted. They eventually concluded she didn’t violate that policy after more than 300 Post employees came to her defense.

But Sonmez’s relationship with the Post deteriorated from there. She unsuccessfully sued the paper in 2021, claiming they discriminated against her by blocking her from covering sexual assault cases because she was a sexual assault survivor. And they fired her in 2022 for “insubordination, maligning your coworkers online and violating the Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity” following her Twitter criticism of colleague Dave Weigel.

This all has come to a head again thanks to a new book from Baron, who retired from the Post in February 2021 after helming that paper from 2012 to that point. His book, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post, looks at many of the decisions he made during his time at the paper.

That includes material on Sonmez’s tweet, which he writes made him “livid,” and the paper’s reaction to that. And CNN’s Jake Tapper brought that up as part of a wider-ranging interview Wednesday, and offered criticisms of Baron for that, defending Sonmez’s tweet with “I can’t think of anything more journalistic.” Here’s the first part of the five-minute-plus segment:

Tapper introduces this by discussing Baron’s overall take on Sonmez and the paper’s social media policies in general, and says “I don’t want to get into that, but there’s one specific instance where I think you’re wrong.” He then describes Sonmez’s tweet on the Bryant case and the Post reaction.

After that, Tapper says “In your book, you describe being livid over her tweet. First of all, I can’t think of anything more journalistic, in the sense that we are the ones that are supposed to bring up the most uncomfortable truths to the public, than that tweet. And second of all, I bet there were millions of rape survivors and sexual assault survivors that saw her tweet and thought ‘Thank god somebody out there is speaking for me.'”

Baron responds with “Sure, look, I mean, when we have done obituaries on controversial people, we always bring up their moments of dishonor. We discuss that, we report on that. But we also assign certain people to do those kinds of stories. We don’t expect anybody in the newsroom to decide to throw out commentary as they wish, whenever they wish, in whatever manner they wish. And so of course we were going to deal with those rape allegations in the obituary we were writing.”

“But she decided to put out a tweet less than an hour after it had been confirmed by the Associated Press, the death of Kobe Bryant had been confirmed by the Associated Press. She wasn’t involved in the story, we didn’t ask her to be involved in the story.”

“And we took great care, we take care in our coverage of sensitive issues, to write those stories in a sensitive way, and to decide when we’re going to publish it. We can’t have any one of 1,000 people on our staff decide to take responsibility on themselves to say how we should cover a particular story. We assign particular reporters to do it, and editors, and they’re the ones that make those judgements.”

Tapper then pushes back on that a bit, and further endorses how Sonmez handled that.

“But unless you’re going to ban everybody on your staff from tweeting and social media posts completely, I still just don’t understand what she did wrong,” Tapper says. “I mean, look, I’m from Philadelphia. Okay. Kobe Bryant went to Lower Merion High School, his dad coached at my high school, girls varsity basketball. I want to believe the myth about Kobe Bryant, too.”

“But there is this ugly incident in 2003. I don’t want to think about it, and I certainly didn’t want to think about it after he died. But what Felicia did is journalism.”

Baron responds with another discussion of Sonmez not being involved in the paper’s coverage of that story, saying “Well, I mean, look, we as editors decide who’s going to cover a story, how you cover a story.  You do that here.”  Tapper says “It was just a tweet.”

Baron says “It wasn’t a tweet. It was a tweet at a particular moment and particular way that created an enormous reaction where people focused on us at The Washington Post as opposed to focusing on our coverage of Kobe Bryant. Of course, we were going to cover that, and we did, and we had covered those rape allegations aggressively beforehand.”

Tapper then asks “Yeah, but why did the Post, and why did you respond so strongly to it, do you think?” Baron replies “Because we didn’t ask her to get involved in that story. we don’t feel she should have been involved in that story. The people who should have been were the people we assigned to be involved in the story. And it distracted attention from the coverage that we were undertaking.”

The last part of this comes from Tapper bringing up the wider context of sexual harassment and assault, and Baron’s previous work covering that at The Boston Globe. Baron served as executive editor there from 2001-2012. During his tenure, the paper’s “Spotlight” investigative team won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for their work investigating sexual assault and cover-ups inside the Catholic Church, which was part of what was covered in the 2015 movie Spotlight. Tapper asks Baron how that fits into his reaction here, and Baron again says that that coverage came from particular assignments and careful stories, not tweets.

Tapper asks “I guess the only other thing I want to ask about this is a 2018 CDC study shows that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men in the U.S. reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime. You yourself when you were at The Boston Globe did so much for victims of sexual assault and victims of the Catholic church. I wonder if maybe you have a blind spot on this?”

Baron responds “I don’t think I have a blind spot on this. I’m glad you pointed that out. We did enormous work at The Boston Globe to highlight sexual abuse by priests. But we took great care with how we did those stories. We didn’t have everybody tweeting whatever they wanted. We didn’t have people tweeting about celibacy or anything like that.”

“We picked the reporters to work on that. We selected the headlines, we were very careful with the headlines, we were very careful with how the stories were written. And that’s what a news organization is supposed to do, decide how we are going to cover these sensitive issues. That’s what we wanted to do in the case of Kobe Bryant. Let’s assign the right reporters to work on it. Let’s have editors involved in those discussions and in the formation of that coverage. And those are the people who should focus on it, not just anyone on the staff.”

Tapper then ends the interview with “Look, it’s okay that I agree with you on 95 percent of the book and we disagree on a tweet.”

Both sides have some notable points here. Tapper’s argument that “I still just don’t understand what she did wrong” has some merit. And that’s especially true around the initial tweet that was simply a Daily Beast headline and story. Sonmez told Rachel Abrams of The New York Times she deliberately avoided adding opinion there, saying “Because The Post does have policies governing these things, all I did was tweet out a link to the story. I didn’t think it was my place to provide any further commentary.”

The email screenshot can be debated more, with some finding it appropriate to share names of particularly vile critics and others not, and that’s what Matthew Keys reported was actually under review around the social media policy investigation. But after more than 300 Post staffers supported Sonmez, the paper concluded she didn’t break the policy. So Tapper has a point that it’s notable that Baron still thinks Sonmez erred here, to the degree of describing himself as “livid” in a book about it years after the fact. And it’s notable that Baron got personally involved here early on, writing Sonmez a “Felicia, A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this” email on that day, before the announcement she was placed on administrative leave.

Beyond that, a flaw in Baron’s argument is that the particular discussion here was not about new and controversial reporting. Baron’s discussion of how the Globe handled that Catholic Church investigation is valid, but it’s a different circumstance; the information they were bringing forward there was new, carried plenty of threats of legal action, and needed to be handled extremely sensitively. But the sexual assault discussion around Bryant was not new, and Sonmez was not trying to claim it was. This wasn’t reporting, but rather a discussion of how to frame past incidents in coverage of a death. And there’s some merit to having that discussion in public, and to having everyone who wants to weigh in on it.

But it’s also understandable why Baron sees this the way he does, and why his perspective is so different from Tapper’s. First off, he’s older (68 to Tapper’s 54), and much of his career in senior leadership roles (including overseeing those Globe investigations) took place long before Twitter’s 2006 founding. Twitter (and other social media sites, but to a lesser extent) has dramatically changed the media landscape, with conversations around breaking stories happening more publicly and much more quickly than they used to.

Twitter also provides a place for anyone who wants to weigh in on a story and do so quickly and concisely. And that’s a challenge to the model Baron is describing. Under his model, a media organization’s coverage of a particular event is handled through layers of selection of editors and reporters, generation of a complete story, and then layers of editing before anything is released to the public.

That model worked well for a long while. And it can still work in certain cases. And it has advantages in terms of making sure to get a story’s details right. But it’s certainly going to miss at least the initial wave of interest in a story. And it limits who can discuss that story.

There’s also a discrepancy in terms of the perspectives Tapper and Baron are coming from. Tapper is known for his on-air reporting and commentary, but also for his active and opinionated Twitter presence. Meanwhile, Baron is more known for organizational leadership than publicly expressing his own opinions (although he’s certainly doing the latter with his book). And he barely tweets. So they place different values on social media, and perhaps particularly on commentary on social media.

A further part of the issue is with the reader’s reaction. Sonmez’s tweet was a tweet from one Washington Post reporter and a reporter who was not working on Bryant’s coverage. It was a link to a story from a different publication and was presented without commentary (at least at first).

But that’s not how many people reacted to it. Many people went after the entire Post as well as Sonmez, claiming her tweet reflected their entire approach covering Bryant’s death. That’s not true, but it is the reaction that happened, and that’s worth discussing.

And the discussion of just how much criticism media organizations should take for social media activity from their employees outside the scope of their work is a complicated and ongoing one without an easy answer. There’s also a complicated discussion on just how much employers can or should restrict social media comments from their employees.

We’ve seen that countless times over the years, especially with ESPN. However many outlets have taken a lot of flak for employees’ tweets. And many people have lost jobs for social media comments.

Ultimately, Tapper has a point with his criticisms of Baron’s response to Sonmez’s tweet. While the Post‘s print and online coverage of Bryant’s did include some discussion of the sexual assault case, that was a smaller part of those pieces.

That acknowledgement was still important. And it was a notable difference from some of the Bryant tributes that were fully laudatory. But it was muted. And the fully laudatory tributes weren’t all wrong, either; they were possibly the right fit for those networks at that time.

But Sonmez’s tweet, and its timing, brought up an important side of the conversation. And while it’s understandable why and how Baron objected to that, and to the blowback it caused the Post, his position on this issue does seem weaker than Tapper’s.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.