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Washington Post “regrets” airing personnel matter over reporter’s Kobe Bryant tweets

A Washington Post executive says the company “regrets” discussing its decision to place a political reporter on leave over her series of tweets following the death of retired basketball player Kobe Bryant.

In a statement released Tuesday evening, Tracy Grant, the managing editor of the newspaper, said an internal review found Felicia Sonmez’s Twitter postings directing readers to a Daily Beast article outlining allegations of sexual abuse against Bryant were “ill-timed” considering the basketball star had died along with his teenage daughter in a crash that same day.

On Sunday, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter were among nine people on board a helicopter collided with the side of a mountain in a Los Angeles suburb. Within hours of the news, Sonmez tweeted a single link to a 2016 Daily Beast article that largely focused on the narrative of a woman who accused Bryant of sexual abuse during a hotel tryst in 2003.

Sonmez did not say why she was tweeting a link to the story, leaving thousands to interpret it for themselves. They did, and after a flurry of criticism, Sonmez followed up with three tweets saying the experience was “eye opening” and justifying her decision as an effort to include an element of “totality” in the coverage of Bryant’s death.

Her final tweet of the day was a screen capture of her Washington Post email inbox containing the full names of her critics. Some of the messages included vile and obscene language.

A few hours later, Sonmez deleted the four tweets. Late Sunday evening, Grant told media outlets the reporter had been suspended pending an investigation into her Twitter activity. A Washington Post employee told The Desk the focus of the investigation was largely on the final tweet that contained the email messages, though subsequent statements provided to media outlets by Grant said the investigation focused on the series of tweets as a whole.

Sonmez gave multiple interviews to other media outlets during her suspension, including an interview to the New York Times where she provided a copy of email correspondence sent to her by Washington Post officials excoriating her for her social media posts.

“A real lack of judgment to tweet this,” Marty Baron, the executive editor of the newspaper, wrote to Sonmez in a message that addressed her by her first name. Baron went on to ask that Sonmez stop her posts, claiming they were “hurting the institution.”

A union representing Washington Post employees backed Sonmez and urged the newspaper to reinstate her and provide her additional protections following alleged threats made against the reporter.  The statement said the Post was not equitable in its enforcement of its social media policy, noting that other Post employees had used their personal accounts to publish content outside of their coverage areas without reprimand.

On Tuesday, a Washington Post communications executive tweeted a screen capture of a message from Grant saying Sonmez was “not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.”

“We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths,” Grant said. “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”

It was not immediately clear if Sonmez had been allowed to return to work following the completion of the Post’s internal review.

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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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