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The controversy over a Washington Post reporter’s Kobe Bryant tweets, explained

The controversy over bringing up the rape allegation against Kobe Bryant after his death highlights the difficulty of remembering complex figures.

A memorial for Kobe Bryant outside of the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, California.
Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

The Washington Post suspended and then reinstated a reporter who posted a series of tweets about the 2003 rape allegation against basketball star Kobe Bryant after his death on Sunday. The incident has stirred up controversy over how we remember complicated public figures, even as circumstances around the suspension remain unclear.

Bryant, 41, and one of his daughters, 13-year-old Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday morning. News of the crash prompted an outpouring of emotion across the country and the world, but it was also met with reminders of a darker part of Bryant’s past: namely, the rape case brought against him more than 15 years ago. Felicia Sonmez, a reporter at the Washington Post, was one of many people to bring up the incident.

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.”

The tweets have since been deleted, but the controversy around them — and Sonmez’s employer’s handling of them — has continued to swirl.

The circumstances around Sonmez’s suspension are murky

“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 an initial statement, which did 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.

Kafka asked the Post whether the outlet is reacting to the online mob angered by Sonmez’s treatment of a popular sports star. Kris Coratti, head of communications at the Post, pushed back. “That’s not at all what Tracy said, and that’s not at all accurate,” Coratti said.

Sonmez did not reply to a request for comment from Vox. However, she spoke with Erik Wemple, the Post’s media critic, about the matter. She said that on Sunday, she emailed Grant and her editor about the threats she had received after her tweets and that Grant instructed her to take the tweets down.

Sonmez told Wemple she was a “little delayed” in removing them because she was worried about the threats, noting that someone had posted her address online. After a follow-up from Grant, Sonmez took the tweets down, and she said that on Sunday evening she stayed in a hotel out of fear for her safety. She was then told she was being placed on administrative leave. Grant told her via email that the tweets didn’t “pertain” to her area of coverage, and that her social media behavior “is making it harder for others to do their work” at the Post.

As Wemple notes, a look at the outlet’s social media guidelines makes the reason Sonmez was suspended more confusing, not less: The Post encourages reporters to be informative, check facts, and take ownership of mistakes. “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,” Sonmez told Wemple. “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.”

The Washington Post Guild, a union that represents about 1,000 of the publication’s employees, published an open letter to Post leadership supporting Sonmez and calling on their employer to take “immediate steps” to support her. “We have repeatedly seen colleagues — including members of management — share contentious opinions on social media platforms without sanction,” the guild wrote. “But here a valued colleague is being censured for making a statement of fact. Felicia did nothing more than what the Post’s own news stories have done when she shared an article about the past allegation against Bryant.”

On Tuesday, the Post reversed course on its decision. In a new statement, Grant said that while they considered Sonmez’s tweets “ill-timed,” they didn’t violate the publication’s social media policy. She added that the Post consistently urges restraint, “which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths,” and regretted having spoken publicly about the matter.

But the matter, it appears, still hasn’t been put to bed entirely. After her reinstatement, Sonmez released a statement saying that the Post’s readers and employees, including her, “deserve to hear directly” from Post editor Marty Baron about what happened.

There’s a broader discussion about how we remember complicated figures after they die

Sonmez’s tweets did, indeed, spark an enormous backlash online. Thousands of people responded to her Daily Beast tweet with outrage, while others came to her defense.

There is a bigger debate beyond the circumstances of Sonmez’s tweets: How do we talk about revered figures when they die, including the good and the bad?

Sonmez is hardly the only person to mention the allegation against Bryant in the wake of his death. Plenty of other people did the same and did not get the same amount of backlash; many of the posters were men, and men often don’t experience the same amount of vitriol online as their female counterparts.

Also, it’s a tough subject: The helicopter crash is a tragic incident, Bryant leaves behind his family and friends, and he is a beloved figure to many. His family is grieving, and taking to Twitter to talk about a dark part of his past can appear insensitive. At the same time, the rape allegation against him is part of his narrative, and just because he did a lot of good things and was great at basketball doesn’t mean we should never speak of other aspects of his life. That’s perhaps especially true for reporters.

It’s a question we face after the death of many public figures. Sen. John McCain was a war hero and a political powerhouse, but he also put Sarah Palin on the national stage, among other controversies. Being a public figure is complicated, and those complications happen in our private lives, too.

Beyond the ins and outs of the debate around the sensitivity of tweets like Sonmez’s, the Post’s decision to suspend her was perplexing, as was its murky reasoning and, finally, its reversal. Journalists are supposed to be dedicated to the truth and shining light on things that are sometimes ugly and painful. The Post should recognize that — or at the very least have an explanation beyond seemingly responding to a Twitter mob.

Peter Kafka contributed reporting to this story.

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