Why did the Washington Post ban a sexual assault survivor from reporting on rape?
The newspaper wouldn’t let Felicia Sonmez cover stories about sexual misconduct. That policy was to the Post’s detriment ‘The Post’s decision to interpret a reporter’s personal history as necessitating an artificial limit to her professional opportunities echoes several broader questions facing national news organizations.’ Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP Felicia Sonmez had to flee her home. In early 2020, after the death of the basketball player Kobe Bryant, Sonmez, a longtime breaking news reporter at the Washington Post, tweeted a link to a Daily Beast story about the 2003 rape allegation against Bryant. The tweet had no commentary and no editorializing by Sonmez, and yet on the day it appeared online, it was a lonely acknowledgment of Bryant’s compromised legacy amid a sea of uncritical praise for the dead athlete. In response, the reporter received a deluge of abuse from Bryant’s fans. They were angry at what they saw as Sonmez besmirching Bryant’s memory by acknowledging the accusation that he had been sexually violent towards a Colorado woman; they were willing to avenge this disrespect, or so they claimed, with more violence against women. The name-calling escalated into threats, and some of those threats seemed credible. Her home address was published online. For her own safety, Sonmez went briefly into hiding. The story is sadly familiar to female journalists, who face harassment, threats, stalking, and other digital hostility as a strange and uncompensated condition of their jobs. But in many cases, these female journalists are defended by their employers. Such was the case for Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times reporter on digital culture who was targeted by Tucker Carlson and other rightwing instigators last month: the Times issued a statement standing by their reporter, and condemning the attacks against her. Not so for Sonmez at the Post. If anything, the paper’s leadership seemed to be echoing the complaints of her harassers. “A real lack of judgment to tweet this,” Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, wrote to Sonmez in an email, which contained a screenshot of Sonmez’ tweet. “Please stop. You’re hurting the institution by doing this.” Shortly thereafter, Barron suspended Sonmez from the Post as punishment for the tweet. She was not reinstated until a groundswell of support from hundreds of other reporters embarrassed the Post into retracting their decision. In the end, she was cleared to go back to work, but not until Sonmez had been put through a needless and cruel ordeal, one in which she not only feared for her life, but was also made to fear for her job – all for the offense of acknowledging sexual violence. Marty Barron suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez from the Post as punishment for her tweet about Kobe Bryant. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images As awful as it was, the incident in the aftermath of the Bryant tweet was not the first time Sonmez had been subjected to a gendered indignity by the Washington Post. In reporting that was published on Sunday night, Politico confirmed what has long been an open secret in media circles: under Baron, the Post implemented a policy whereby Sonmez, because she has publicly disclosed a past experience of sexual abuse, is prohibited from working on stories that contain a sexual misconduct component. Sonmez first came forward as a survivor of sexual violence in the spring of 2018, when she wrote of being attacked by a colleague she had had worked alongside in China. Her descriptions of the man’s conduct mirrored allegations made by other women. But the exposure of coming forward subjected Sonmez to a new ordeal: public scrutiny, some of it hostile. A libertarian magazine published a long piece arguing that the fate of Sonmez’ attacker, who resigned from his job after an investigation, was an example of #MeToo gone too far – the piece was amplified by conservative media personalities. Then, at the Post, Sonmez was informed that because of her past history, and her public statements about it, she would not be permitted to cover stories that pertained to sexual violence. And so Sonmez found herself proscribed from writing about a topic that, as a breaking news reporter, has been a core component of many of the stories for which she would have been a natural fit. She was not permitted to write about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. She was not able to write about AOC’s livestream in the wake of the 6 January Capitol insurrection. She has not been able to write about the harassment allegations against the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo. Sonmez has repeatedly petitioned the Post to rescind the prohibition on what she is allowed to cover. “It is humiliating to again and again have to tell my colleagues and editors that I am not allowed to do my job fully because I was assaulted,” she wrote in one such request, last May. The Post has refused. According to Sonmez’s Twitter, the Post has posited a curious rationale for the ban, claiming that they do not feel that Sonmez’ personal history would make her biased in her coverage of sexual violence – and indeed there seem to be no complaints about the quality of her work – but that other people would perceive her as biased. Indeed, the Post’s decisions about Sonmez seem to have been motivated largely by social media pressures and the fear of bad press. According to someone with knowledge of the ban, Sonmez was initially banned from covering stories with a sexual violence component in the late summer of 2018, after her alleged attacker made a series of public complaints about her. The ban was lifted for a time, but then reinstated in 2019 after the article in the libertarian magazine garnered Sonmez negative attention from rightwing media. When Twitter users didn’t like her reference to sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant, she was suspended. When other journalists didn’t like her suspension, her suspension was lifted. This week, after news of the ban broke on Politico, journalists expressed their support of Sonmez and their opposition to the policy online. The ban was lifted in response, and the Post says that Sonmez is now allowed to report on sexual abuse stories, if she wishes. That’s for now. But how long until pressures from misogynists and rape apologists – from Sonmez’ attacker, or from the rightwing media, or from those who would excuse sexual violence – persuade them to curtail her career yet again? The Post’s policy is almost certainly shielding other abusers by keeping other women on staff silent about their experiences If we can take the Post at their word that they are worried not about Sonmez’ capacities, but about the perceptions of others, this is a very strange choice. In effect, this rationale is misogyny by proxy, with the Post outsourcing the moral responsibility for a sexist outcome on to their readers. They have to do a sexist thing not because they are sexist, but because other people are sexist, and those other people might be mad if the Post does not enforce a sexist outcome. The Post’s account of their own choices regarding Sonmez’ work, then, is that in personnel decisions, they defer to what they imagine are their readers worst impulses, and therefore are obligated to reproduces the bigotries of the public. The Post’s decision to interpret Sonmez’ personal history as necessitating an artificial limit to her professional opportunities echoes several broader questions facing national news organizations. To what extent is objectivity possible, and what should it look like in an era when accurate reporting undermines any attempt at partisan balance? To what extent can reporters express themselves online without compromising the perceived objectivity of their news organizations? How can the news media grapple with the asymmetric aggression of rightwing internet trolls, whose attacks on female journalists, in particular, can impose intolerable working conditions and skew coverage from other outlets? These are serious questions facing news organizations, ones that there are no simple answers for. But these questions are not asked with the same seriousness or skepticism of every reporter, and the subject matter that Sonmez is allegedly not equipped to cover is not subject to the same standards of scrutiny as other subjects. Instead, the Post’s policy forbidding a sexual violence survivor from covering any stories that pertain to sexual violence can be understood as part of a long cultural legacy that seeks to depict women who come forward with sexual abuse claims as delusional, untrustworthy or incompetent. This legacy has been reproduced in culture and in law. In criminal cases, sexual violence has been subjected to a higher standard of evidence than other violent crimes, and a woman’s testimony regarding her own experiences of sexual violence has been treated with particular skepticism. Until recently, laws in most states dictated that such testimony from women was inadmissible unless it could be corroborated by another witness – something not required for other crimes – and judges were required to issue special instructions to juries directing them to treat an accusing woman’s account as less credible than other kinds of testimony. These laws have been eradicated thanks to the hard work of feminist lawyers and activists, but the cultural attitudes they reflected still persist: women who have been sexually assaulted are still frequently deemed unable to testify to their own experience, either because they are presumed to be lying, or, more insidiously, because they are deemed too sensitive, too traumatized, or too damaged to fairly and accurately assess the world around them. This seems to be what has happened to Sonmez at the Post: since she seems so confident that what happened to her was wrong, the paper does not trust her judgment on other matters. The Post policy on Sonmez’ work raises questions for media, but it also raises questions for our hierarchies of knowledge. Who do we deem too damaged by the world to accurately interpret it? Whose experience do we count as a virtue, and whose do we count as a contaminant? What kinds of experience – and by extension, what kinds of knowledge – are considered is dangerous to have? The idea that having experienced sexual violence renders someone incapable of reporting on it fairly is only possible to hold if you have a very particular understanding of what that experience does to a woman’s intellect. Part of the reason why Sonmez’ story resonates so deeply with the women who have learned about what happened to her at the Post is that her experience confirms their worst fears about how those around them would respond if they were honest about their own experiences of sexual violence: that they would be thought of as damaged, unreliable, too fragile or too fraught to be seen for their full capacities. In reality, women contain multitudes – they can contain the sadness and anger over what happened to them in the past, alongside an intellect, a sense of judgment, and a keen responsibility towards other aspects of their lives. This balance is not superhuman or even uncommon; it is one that adults strike every day. The Post’s policy seems to preclude it, at least for sexual violence survivors, and that is to the paper’s detriment. When men have personal experience with a subject, we do not call that bias. We call it expertise In addition to curtailing what would likely be more nuanced and sensitive reporting from Sonmez on these stories, the Post’s policy is almost certainly shielding other abusers by keeping other women on the Post’s staff silent about their experiences – having seen the example that was made of Sonmez, they can understand quite clearly that they have a choice between telling the truth or fulfilling their professional ambitions. This is a loss for sexual misconduct stories, since women who are survivors have a particular insight into the issue that others do not. But if anything, the experience of sexual violence makes women who have gone through it not biased, but informed. It grants them a real and hard-won awareness of how sexual violence really works – not as it is depicted in movies and myths, but as it is experienced by those involved. It grants them a sense of the complexities of sexual violence, and it drives home the impact of the assaults themselves, and of coming forward. The idea that experience would equal bias is contradicted by the reality of how writers and reporters learn. It’s hard to imagine that anyone, let alone the editors of the Washington Post, would be confused about this if it were any other subject besides sexual violence in question. After all, when men have personal experience with a subject, we do not call that bias. We call it expertise.