The Washington Post’s controversial decision to punish a reporter last week over a Kobe Bryant tweet is not the first time the newspaper’s strict social-media policies have caused internal headaches and clashes between management and the paper’s high-profile journalists.
The Post last Sunday placed reporter Felicia Sonmez on leave when, in the wake of Bryant’s death, she tweeted a years-old Daily Beast story detailing the 2003 rape allegations against him. The company eventually backtracked, saying that while she did not violate the social-media policy, Sonmez’s tweets were “ill-timed.”
The ordeal was reminiscent of other social-media-related clashes between the paper’s bosses and its star reporters—internal incidents that, unlike Sonmez’s, never spilled out into public view. The Daily Beast has learned of several incidents in which Post management warned reporters about their tweeted opinions on topics unrelated to their beats or discouraged reporters from publicly sharing information about personal experiences.
One such internal spat, involving star reporter Wesley Lowery, caused a stir in the Washington Post newsroom last year.
Multiple sources familiar with the events told The Daily Beast that last year, Post Executive Editor Marty Baron privately clashed with Lowery, a national correspondent who was part of the paper’s team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of police shootings. The subject in question: Lowery’s tweets.
Last year, Lowery posted a series of tweets questioning why a New York Times retrospective about the Tea Party failed to note how the early-2010s conservative movement was “essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president?” (The Times eventually added the racial context to its piece.)
The tweets were apparently enough to set off Baron, who along with Managing Editor Tracy Grant told Lowery that his tweets violated the Post’s social-media rules and threatened the newspaper’s credibility. In a subsequent meeting, explained to The Daily Beast by two Post insiders, the top editor at the paper told Lowery that he had made overtly political statements about the Tea Party, and had maligned the Times in the process.
The recourse, Baron suggested, would be for Lowery to become an opinion writer, or work for an advocacy organization. The top editor also threatened to fire Lowery if he violated the social-media policy again. The Washington Post declined to comment.
Lowery, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast, also announced this week that he is leaving for a job at CBS News. Following the initial publication of this article, Lowery tweeted: “Should go without saying: reporters of color shouldn’t have their jobs threatened for speaking out about mainstream media failures to properly cover and contextualize issues of race. What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?”
Knowledge of the scolding spread and some staffers recalled the incident this week to The Daily Beast following Sonmez’s controversial administrative leave.
Sonmez’s suspension, too, set off a wave of criticism inside the Post’s newsroom. Hundreds of the paper’s reporters sent a letter last week to management demanding that she be taken off leave. Others were also outraged when the union also disclosed that management had expressed concerns to her previously about her public statements regarding her own experience of sexual assault.
“We do not want social media activity to be a distraction, and we do not want it to give a false impression of the tenor of our coverage,” Baron eventually wrote in a memo to staff after the paper backed off Sonmez’s suspension. “It is not always easy to know where to draw the line."
The company’s editorial union, which represents some of the paper’s staff, also pushed back against previous stringent social-media guidelines. Sources familiar told The Daily Beast that when the company passed down a new social-media policy in 2017, many reporters were taken aback by its stringent language barring anyone from posting any tweets that could negatively impact colleagues. And when management refused to negotiate over the policies with the union, the group filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
The Sonmez incident recalled an internal debate at the Post about Kobe Bryant following his 2018 visit to the newsroom.
During that meeting, in which the NBA star was warmly greeted, Bryant mingled with staff and posed for pictures with Baron and others. The visit disturbed enough women at the Post—many of whom were responsible for the paper’s ambitious reporting on sexual harassment—that some circulated a letter expressing concern about the “spectacle” of Bryant’s visit.
That letter, signed by 100 staffers, was ultimately never sent to Baron.