Washington Post in turmoil over Twitter behavior of Millennial reporters

The front of the Washington Post building as pictured in September 2012. (Photo: Max Borge/Flickr Creative Commons)

Sally Buzbee is barely a year into her tenure as the Washington Post’ executive editor, and she’s already in the process of putting out little fires ignited by the paper’s very young, not-much-real-world-experience journalists.

The firestorm started last week when politics reporter Dave Weigel shared a joke on Twitter that self-proclaimed anti-dork podcaster Cam Harless wrote, claiming women fell into one of two categories.

“Every girl is bi,” Harless wrote last Wednesday. “You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”

Not a particularly funny joke, though Weigel apparently disagreed with that assessment, as he re-tweeted the pun, giving it exposure to his more than 602,000 followers.

Never one to miss an opportunity to stir the pot, reporter Felicia Sonmez —  who was famously suspended by the Post for tweeting about former basketball star Kobe Bryant’s rape case the same day he tragically died in a helicopter crash — sarcastically wrote on her own Twitter account that it was “fantastic to work at a news outlet where re-tweets like this are allowed.”

Of course, re-tweets like that aren’t allowed, and according to some reports, Weigel has been suspended without pay. Because of Twitter.

Jose Del Real, another political reporter at the Post, jumped in, accusing Sonmez of rallying her 106,000 Twitter followers to attack Weigel for making a mistake.

That charge set off an ugly back-and-forth between two journalists who are supposed to be adults, but who ultimately treated their social media platforms as the digital equivalent of an elementary school playground. It finally ended — at least for the moment — when Buzbee had to step in as the voice of reason and remind her staffers that they were expected to “treat each other with respond and kidness, both in the newsroom and online.”

“We are a collegial and creative newsroom doing an astonishing amount of important and groundbreaking journalism,” Buzbee wrote in a memo, copies of which were quickly circulated on the social media accounts of non-Post journalists.

“One of the great strengths of our newsroom is our collaborative spirit,” Buzbee continued. “The Washington Post is committed to an inclusive and respectful environment free of harassment, discrimination or bias of any sort…when issues arise, please raise them with leadership or human resources, and we will address them promptly and firmly.”

Looking into the backgrounds of each reporter, it’s easy to see how this problem manifested itself: All three are young, intrepid journalists with strong social media followings — and all three practically had their careers handed to them.

A view of Weigel biography and Del Real’s LinkedIn page shows both men entered the world of political reporting at establishment, national news outlets. Sonmez, like Del Real, graduated from the prestigious Harvard University and, like her two colleagues, started in national media from the get-go. There’s no indication any of them had to cover a local city council meeting, or a community town hall, or do any of the hundreds of mundane task that a 20-something local newspaper or television reporter would have to do in a small news market. None of them, apparently, had to work their way up.

That is a far cry from some prestigious journalists of the past. Carl Bernstein, for example, worked at a local newspaper in New Jersey before he moved to the Washington Post. Bob Woodward served in the U.S. Navy for several years before he applied to be a cub reporter at the Post. The late David Carr, who worked for the Post’s competitor, the Washington City Paper, started his writing career at an alternative newspaper in Minneapolis.

Bernstein, Woodward and Carr did not start their adulthood in a national newsroom of high reputation. They worked their way to it — and the stories they published had impact and meaning. They served their audiences and their institution, and they are among the most-respected journalists to come out of print media in the 20th Century.

Weigel, Sonmez and Del Real, on the other hand, suffer from a sense of entitlement: Their bosses entrusted upon them a career that they weren’t ready for, and it has molded them not into respectable journalists, or even respectable adults, but into Twitter comedians, pearl-clutching victims and newsroom pundits.  It is tough to see how any of the three served their audience or their institution over the past week.

If Buzbee really wants to send a message that respect is paramount in her newsroom, then it’s time she does something that should have taken place a long time ago in her establishment newsroom: Clean house. Going forward, the Post’s hiring managers should avoid hiring people straight out of college and instead prioritize candidates who have more than a few years’ worth of real-world adulting and experience.

If Weigel wants to be a comedian, he should use his free time to take a few improv classes. If Sonmez and Del Real think they know the best way to run a newsroom, they should spin up a Substack and prove everyone wrong.