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Washington Post reporter suspended following Kobe Bryant tweet backlash

A tweet posted by the Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez drew instant criticism following the death of former basketball player Kobe Bryant. (Image: Twitter/The Desk)

A Washington Post reporter has been suspended after drawing the ire of Twitter users over a post that linked to a Daily Beast story detailing rape allegations made against the late basketball star Kobe Bryant.

Felicia Sonmez, a national politics reporter based in Washington, published the initial tweet linking to a story that detailed “Kobe Bryant’s disturbing rape case” the same morning the former Los Angeles Lakers basketball player died in a helicopter crash early Sunday morning.

Bryant was one of nine people on board the helicopter when it went down along a walking trail in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas. Bryant was en route to Mamba Sports Academy where his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, played basketball. Gianna was also killed in the crash, as were other players from the academy and their parents.

Sonmez did not post a story about the helicopter crash, but the response she posted after receiving a swarm of social media criticism suggested she knew about it.

“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,” Sonmez wrote in a follow-up tweet published late Sunday morning.

The piece she linked to at the Daily Beast, published in April 2016, took a deep dive into a 2003 rape allegation made by a 19-year-old hotel worker who later refused to testify against the basketball player and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. The story acknowledged that the exact circumstances surrounding what happened nearly two decades ago “may always be a mystery” because the case never made it to trial.

Sonmez’s final tweet on the matter was a screen shot of her Washington Post email inbox that showed a half-dozen messages from members of the public criticizing her for her posts, some using extremely vulgar and harassing language.

Managers at the Washington Post are investigating whether reporter Felicia Sonmez’s tweet containing a screen capture of her email inbox violated the company’s policy. A full name of an emailer revealed by Sonmez has been concealed in this image by The Desk. (Image: Twitter / The Desk)

Sunday evening, two people within the Washington Post newsroom confirmed to The Desk Sonmez had been suspended from her duties as the news organization launched an investigation into whether Sonmez had violated the outlet’s social media policy.

The suspension, first reported by the British online tabloid Daily Mail UK, drew cheers and condemnation alike from various corners of the Internet, with some applauding the Post’s decision to suspend a reporter willing to generate a viral sensation around herself in the face of a tragedy and others coming to Sonmez’s defense by painting her action as nothing more than a journalist tweeting a mere story.

But a person familiar with the suspension said it was not Sonmez’s tweet linking to the Daily Beast article that triggered the suspension, nor was it two follow-up tweets where she said the thousands who criticized her in the hours since was an “eye opening experience.” It was the third tweet that showed her email inbox that landed her in hot water with the company, in part because it contained the purported full names of those who sent her an email, according to a Washington Post employee who spoke with The Desk on condition of anonymity.

“Her managers don’t care about the Daily Beast tweet,” the Post employee said. “But there’s a concern that the screen shot (of her email inbox) might create some legal issues and could violate Twitter’s terms (of service).”

Sonmez removed the four tweets, including the one linking to the Daily Beast story, late Sunday afternoon.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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