Inside Felicia Sonmez’s Lawsuit Against the Washington Post

Why was a reporter punished for speaking up about sexual assault?

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Shutterstock

In February 2020, the leadership of the Washington Post was in the midst of an internal crisis. Marty Baron, the revered executive editor credited with reviving the Post after it was nearly washed away by the tsunami of the internet, had launched a listening tour to address the staff’s concerns about the company’s social-media policy. Specifically, Baron and his lieutenants were being grilled on their recent decision to suspend the reporter Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast story about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant shortly after his death in a tragic helicopter crash. The first of the meetings was packed. Staffers say that leadership seemed cagey and annoyed, refusing to even mention Sonmez by name. “Marty sat there, did not say a word, and stared down at the desk the whole time,” one former editor on the national desk told me. “Smoke was coming out of his ears.”

Sonmez had been a point of special focus for the Post’s top brass. Before joining the paper’s politics breaking-news team, she had accused a fellow reporter, former Los Angeles Times correspondent Jonathan Kaiman, of assaulting her in Beijing in 2017. Not long after she was hired in 2018, she was barred from covering stories related to sexual assault. According to a lawsuit Sonmez filed in July of this year against Baron and his inner circle, she was told that, by speaking up about her alleged assault, she had acted like an “activist” and had “taken a side on the issue,” which in their view meant her reporting on assault could open the paper up to accusations of bias.

The ban sidelined Sonmez on a wide range of stories, including those involving former presidential candidate Herman Cain and former New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Though she was discouraged from speaking publicly about her experiences, the ban forced her to talk about her assault constantly in private since she had to regularly explain why she had to step away from assignments. As Sonmez told me in a statement through her lawyer, editors at the Post “retraumatized and humiliated me by forcing me to relive my assault at work, over and over, whenever news broke and a colleague would ask why I wasn’t allowed to cover the story.”

The broader newsroom knew few of these details at the time of Baron’s listening tour. Many staffers were unaware that the Post’s top editors had long believed that Sonmez was undermining its attempts to cover the news objectively and that her tweet about Bryant, which ran against the hagiographic coverage of his life and career, was for them a final straw. As the Post’s managing editor, Tracy Grant, explained to the press at the time, Sonmez’s tweet “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.” Baron emailed Sonmez personally, saying, “Felicia, a real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

But for others on staff, it was her suspension that raised greater alarms in the newsroom. On one stop of the listening tour, the lawsuit states that someone asked Baron if murder and sexual assault could be seen as issues with “two sides.” Baron responded, “Murder is evil, okay? … It’s when you get to the point of advocacy of certain policies [that the line is crossed].”

Many in the newsroom already felt that the Post’s social-media policy was applied unevenly, disproportionately punishing women and reporters of color. The general guidelines, which date back to 2011, state that reporters must “refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.” An additional social-media-policy document from 2017 instructs Post employees to avoid maligning subscribers, advertisers, and competitors.

In a memo sent by staffers in April 2020 in the wake of Sonmez’s suspension, solicited by editor Steven Ginsberg, they pointed out that it was common to receive emails from managers with “Your Tweet” in the subject line, in which they were instructed to delete a tweet but not always told why. One person told me that emails from Baron were sometimes referred to as “Marty-grams” — if they arrived at an odd hour, it almost certainly meant that a reporter was in trouble. Meanwhile, as one person put it in the memo, “People who are stars get away with murder.” Sonmez’s suspension was a turning point. While not everyone approved of her decision to tweet about Bryant, the newsroom broadly agreed that management had badly overreacted, particularly since Sonmez was receiving death threats at the time. Over 300 people, younger reporters and veterans alike, signed a Post Guild petition criticizing the “fundamental flaws” in the Post’s social-media policy and urging leadership to take immediate steps to protect Sonmez. Soon after, she was reinstated.

The controversy cast only a thin shadow on Baron’s otherwise glorious tenure. When he retired a year later, this past February, the air was thick with paeans to his brilliance. “He’s made every institution he touched better,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times. Sacha Pfeiffer, an investigative reporter who worked with Baron on the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (the inspiration for the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight), told the Times, “It’s well known that Marty is not warm and fuzzy. But he’s one of the best editors I’ve ever had, because he has an excellent moral compass, an uncanny instinct for what could make a good story, and he seems to be fearless. He knows how hard reporting can be.”

Sonmez’s suit revived the scandal this past summer, a direct challenge to Baron’s legacy. “Marty was held in very high regard in the newsroom, deservedly so,” Christopher Ingraham, a Post reporter who left the paper in June, told me. But, he added, “I think for a lot of folks, some of the shine came off Marty after what happened with Felicia.” The suit, which alleges discrimination based on her gender and protected status as a victim of sexual assault, details a level of persecution that is as cruel as it is baffling. It also reveals an internal culture that appears to be at odds with the paper’s motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” in which there is such a deep institutional discomfort with acknowledging the realities of sexual assault that they are relentlessly smothered.

How the Post got to this strange place, where its very highest editors bent over backward to punish a single reporter for talking publicly about being assaulted, is a story of generational differences and blind spots and changing journalistic standards. But it’s also a story about Marty Baron, who appears only rarely in the lawsuit itself but presided over a top-down management structure made in his image. “Everybody was trying to please Marty,” the former “National” editor told me, “and Marty expected his every word to be a command, all the way down.”

When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013 and flooded it with money, a subsequent wave of hiring brought in younger, more diverse reporters. The schisms in the newsroom are not necessarily generational — older reporters supported Sonmez and are staunch union members — but there is a tension between a more experienced editorial guard that lives and breathes by the institution and a new, digitally fluent cohort that very much has its own ideas about the relationship between social justice and journalistic integrity. The Post’s traditions die hard: Grant famously hands out a copy of Katharine Graham’s memoir to new reporters.

The Post’s culture clash has played out most visibly in the debate over newsroom objectivity. The fear of running afoul of the objectivity standard has consistently led the Post to some odd places. There was the editor’s note added to a reporter’s story about a district-attorney candidate in San Francisco that pointed out the reporter had a “parent who was formerly incarcerated,” as if this was some indication of bias. (The note was lambasted online.) Or, a hairsplitting memo from Post leadership, widely ridiculed within the company, on what kind of events reporters were and weren’t allowed to attend: “A newsroom employee would not hold a protest sign at a parade or wear a hat supporting or opposing a political candidate or legislative policy, but might wear a rainbow cap, wave an American flag or wear a t-shirt celebrating their identity.”

Antonia Noori Farzan, a former staff writer on the Post’s foreign desk, said that during her orientation, Grant used an example of a reporter solely posting videos of Syrian atrocities on their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Grant said the practice could raise questions about their objectivity on that issue and that they might be barred from covering it. “Obviously a super-weird comment — is there really a fear that we’re going to be overly biased against human-rights violations?” Farzan asked me.

Baron & Co. were at pains to avoid even an appearance of conflict, especially difficult during the Trump era, when right-wing hostility toward media outlets reached new heights. Ingraham recalled that he was disciplined for a tweet about Trump and “collusion” that he sent during the Robert Mueller investigation. Conservative media started attacking him, and he got a write-up on Breitbart. Ingraham was told by editors to delete his tweets and to fly to Washington to get a formal write-up and lecture from management.

“They were dumb tweets, sent in the heat of the moment,” Ingraham acknowledged. “But the incident was reflective of how social-media policy actually worked at the Post: Management effectively let the policy be dictated by the worst elements of the far right. A surefire way to get a Post reporter in trouble at work was to get a critical mass of conservatives mad at that reporter on Twitter.”

The fraught atmosphere of the Trump era formed the backdrop for a clash between unlikely opponents. Baron is an imposing figure, a bear of a man in wire-rimmed glasses. By all accounts, he can be stern, brusque, and, at times, inaccessible. Those who have worked with Baron agree that Liev Schreiber’s taciturn portrayal of him in Spotlight is spot on. (Baron declined a request for an interview.) As Baron has said about himself, “People don’t have to like me, but I hope that they’ll respect me.” Sonmez, who also declined to speak to me directly, cuts a different figure, according to colleagues, who described her as warm, inclusive, and reliable, a team player quick to share sources. The suit Sonmez filed remains an open wound at the company; she still works there, as do the five other editors named in the suit.

They include Grant, Ginsberg, and Lori Montgomery as well as Cameron Barr and Peter Wallsten. Between them, they have decades of reporting and editing experience. Montgomery, now the business editor, started at the Post over 20 years ago. Ginsberg moved his way up to national editor over the course of nearly three decades at the paper after starting as a copy aide. Wallsten, who covered politics in Florida early in his career, is the politics editor. Grant, who is often lauded as the second woman to rise to the managing-editor position at the Post, was, according to her bio, the “arbiter of the newsroom’s standards and ethics policies” at the time Sonmez’s lawsuit landed. Barr started as a reporter on the metro desk and was acting executive editor upon Baron’s retirement. These editors are, needless to say, on the older side, and they are all white. At least a few of them were in the running to replace Baron, but their handling of the Sonmez situation may have hurt their chances. Instead, the Post named Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of the Associated Press, as Baron’s successor in May.

According to the suit, Sonmez came forward publicly with her allegations against Kaiman in 2018 — the second woman to do so — just as she was interviewing for a job at the Post. Soon after Sonmez started the gig, the Los Angeles Times announced that, following an investigation into his conduct, Kaiman would resign.

In September 2018, three months after Sonmez was hired, Christine Blasey Ford publicly came forward with accusations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had assaulted her when they were teenagers. Sonmez co-wrote a story on Kavanaugh that appeared on the paper’s front page. Wallsten, then the politics editor, asked Sonmez how she was doing in light of Ford’s accusations. Sonmez told him that she had needed to take a short walk but returned to work afterward. In a subsequent meeting with the editors, according to the lawsuit, Ginsberg told her they were barring her from covering the Kavanaugh story. “Ginsberg told Ms. Sonmez that he believed the details of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations were ‘too similar’ to the assault Ms. Sonmez experienced in Beijing,” the lawsuit reads. It was suggested that her conversation with Wallsten had “rung” the alarm.

Precisely what alarmed them remains unclear. Perhaps they were genuinely trying to protect the paper during a time of unprecedented partisan furor, or were motivated by some discomfort with Sonmez personally, or some combination of the two. The Post did not make the editors available for an interview.

In subsequent meetings, Sonmez tried to make the case that she was qualified to report on sexual-misconduct stories and that she had done so many times for the Post already with no complaints, including pieces on Trump. The lawsuit states that Ginsberg “angrily accused” Sonmez of “wanting news outlets to report on” Kaiman’s resignation.

By October, the ban had expanded beyond Kavanaugh. Stories about sexual assault continued to emerge, and each time Sonmez’s supervisors stuck to their position. In addition to the stories about Cain and Cuomo, she was taken off a story about Heidi Heitkamp’s reelection bid because the politician had identified sexual-assault survivors in a campaign ad without their consent. Often, Sonmez’s bias was simply assumed. When she was covering a Trump rally in which the former president unexpectedly brought up Kavanaugh’s accuser, Wallsten made a point to tell her to “write it straight.”

There were also confusing negotiations over what Sonmez should and shouldn’t say about her assault outside the newsroom. At the initial meeting over Kavanaugh coverage, Ginsberg, Wallsten, and Montgomery expressed “dissatisfaction” with a statement Sonmez had released in response to Kaiman’s resignation, according to the lawsuit, even though the draft had been reviewed by Grant and Wallsten and approved by the paper’s legal team.

In another instance, Ginsberg asked Sonmez to take down a pinned tweet pointing out errors in a Reason reporter’s piece that attacked Sonmez and tried to discredit the allegations against Kaiman, with the explanation that the tweet made Ginsberg “uncomfortable.” When Sonmez asked for the request in writing, Ginsberg said he would get back to her. Almost two weeks later, she was called into a meeting with Grant and Barr and issued a written warning stating that she had violated the Post’s social-media policy. The warning quoted the policy, stating that “reporters should make every effort to remain in the audience, to be the stagehand rather than the star.” Sonmez’s relationship with her editors at this point was so toxic that Grant told Sonmez to stop taking notes during the meeting because “our words could be used against us.”

The editors also questioned Sonmez’s own actions related to the assault, according to the suit. Montgomery and Wallsten allegedly asked Sonmez why she did not go to the police in Beijing, while Montgomery told Sonmez that “she was always taught that a woman should ‘just say no’ if a man tries to assault her.”

While some of the particulars of Sonmez’s treatment were already known, the shocking details of the lawsuit — which I am told was read by essentially everyone in the Post’s newsroom — painted upper management in a newly disturbing light. At the same time, nearly everyone I spoke to said they could easily imagine those editors saying those things. “I think a lot of the stuff in there resonated with a lot of people as accurate and troubling, and it was very widely discussed internally,” one Post reporter said. “People are very shocked and outraged by the whole thing.”

Perhaps the lawsuit’s biggest bombshell — at least in terms of its possible success — was that Baron had allowed a male reporter who had been accused of sexual misconduct to continue to write Me Too stories for the paper. The Daily Beast later revealed the reporter to be the Post’s Tokyo bureau chief, Simon Denyer, who had been investigated by Grant after the Post’s leadership was made aware of allegations that Denyer had sent an “unsolicited pantless” photo to another journalist. According to the Beast, Grant found no “professional wrongdoing” that would warrant Denyer’s dismissal. Soon after the Beast story ran, the Post announced that Denyer was resigning for a “career change.”

“It’s one of the things about the lawsuit that is striking,” said Emily Martin, vice-president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, pointing out that such suits rarely have such clear comparisons to illustrate discrimination. “The facts are seldom so tidy.”

In September, the Post filed a motion to dismiss Sonmez’s case, claiming that she had waited too long to sue and that the bans that were instated by the editors were the result of her “public advocacy” rather than discrimination against her gender or status as a sexual-assault victim. “This purported employment discrimination case is actually nothing more than the continuation of a campaign by Plaintiff Felicia Sonmez against the journalistic and editorial policies of her employer,” the motion reads, claiming that the editors chose not to assign Sonmez Me Too stories in order to prevent “any perception” of bias. “One can agree or disagree with that decision as a matter of journalism best practices, but it certainly does not amount to discrimination.” The Post’s motion also argued that Denyer was “not similarly situated” to Sonmez because she did “not allege that he took public positions on #MeToo or even that his connection to such issues was publicly known.”

When Sonmez published her ill-fated tweet about Kobe Bryant, she began to receive death threats. Usually when a reporter’s safety is threatened, the Post provides security and support. Instead, the paper’s management ordered Sonmez to delete the tweets and suspended her. In an email to Sonmez, Grant wrote, “You might want to consider a hotel or a friend’s place for this evening.”

It later emerged that Sonmez was not the only reporter who had been subjected to this kind of treatment. In an August 2019 tweet that has since been deleted, Wesley Lowery, a Black reporter on the national desk, criticized a New York Times reporter for an article about the tea party’s rise that failed to mention race. “How do you write a 10 years later piece on the Tea Party and not mention — not once, not even in passing — the fact that it was essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president?” Lowery wrote. The Times updated its story in response to widespread criticism that echoed Lowery’s point, but Baron and Grant still wrote a disciplinary memo, in which they claimed that Lowery had broken the Post’s social-media policy by criticizing a competitor and threatened to fire him. Lowery responded with his own memo pointing out factual inaccuracies in Baron’s memo and the arbitrariness of punishing him for an infraction that other Post reporters committed daily. As the social-media memo sent to Ginsberg read, “Reporters said they are uncertain what constitutes an inappropriate tweet and that managers seem to be more forgiving of white men and newsroom stars than they are of women, minorities, and less high-profile reporters.”

Lowery, who quit the Post in 2020, says the Post’s social-media policy was always shifting. “In the lawsuit, there are any number of times where it is clear the Post would like to present itself acting within very specifically ethical values, but it’s clear that this is not true,” Lowery told me. “It’s flailing around with its decisions — if you had such clarity about what the line was, you wouldn’t have moved it seven times.”

“People have felt very personally affected by what’s happened over the past four years, particularly on matters of race and ethnicity,” Baron said in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, explaining his views on social media. “But I think it’s important that we maintain the credibility of our institution and that none of us do anything to undermine it. The Post is not just a platform for people to draw attention to themselves.”

Of course, Washington Post reporters, like so many others in their profession, draw attention to themselves on social media all the time. It appears there was something about Sonmez and Lowery — the way they drew attention to themselves and the way they responded to their superiors — that Baron and his deputies just didn’t seem to like.

In other instances, the Post was publicly applauded for defending its journalists from harassment. When politics reporter Seung Min Kim faced a torrent of racist and sexist abuse online in February, Ginsberg and other editors made a big show of rallying around her, releasing a statement that read, “She and other minority women endure vile, baseless attacks on a daily basis, no matter what story they are working on or tweeting about.” In a Vanity Fair piece, Ginsberg underscored his commitment to protecting reporters, saying, “I can choose to act or not act, and increasingly I feel like the choice has to be to act.”

During a Zoom town hall for Post reporters in March, editors highlighted those actions and were praised for them. In the Zoom chat, Sonmez — who was still under the ban at the time — wrote, “I wish editors had publicly supported me in the same way when I was being harassed rather than suspending me.” According to the lawsuit, when other attendees asked about Sonmez’s case during the town hall, Barr dismissed their questions.

The lawsuit noted that while Sonmez “fully supported” the Post’s defense of Kim, she was “stunned to see that the same editor who had silenced her from defending herself online, said nothing when she had to leave her home amid threats and continued to bar her from doing her job was being quoted as an authority on protecting female journalists.” Eventually, Sonmez took to Twitter to criticize Ginsberg for hypocrisy along with other editors named in the suit. She also tweeted that their actions were causing her to experience “a recurrence of the same debilitating symptoms that I had when I came forward about my assault 3 years ago.”

Some of Ginsberg’s defenders on the Post’s politics team were upset that Sonmez was calling him out so publicly. But according to the lawsuit, it was only after Sonmez did so that editors finally lifted the ban. As the Post Guild wrote in a statement at the time, “This decision came only after much public criticism and at the expense of Felicia’s mental health. The Post must do better.” Or as Sonmez told me through her lawyer, “Their actions do a disservice to Washington Post readers and send a chilling message to all female journalists: Stay silent about your assault, or your career is on the line.”

The entire Sonmez controversy can be read as an attempt to reform a more old-fashioned, top-down newspaper culture. “Feedback was not welcome and was actively punished,” the former national editor told me. Well, now the Post’s editors were going to get feedback whether they liked it or not, and through channels — Twitter, Zoom, the union — that existed outside the management structure.

The older white male ethos makes itself felt in numbingly familiar ways. HuffPost reported on the culture of sexism at the Post last year, in which a female staffer said, “The place is run by men and it creates a particular atmosphere and assigns a higher value to certain male characteristics. I’ve been a victim of it in a broad way, as most women in the newsroom have.” A pay-disparity report that was put out by the Post Guild in 2019 found that median pay for women in the newsroom was $91,816 versus $109,928 for men. Women of color made around $30,000 less than white men; when controlling for age, white men were paid an average of 7.27 percent higher than the median for their age group, while women of color were paid 3.26 percent lower.

The foreign desk — where Denyer worked — was especially difficult for women, multiple sources told me. Over the past decade, the desk has been run by Douglas Jehl. Women often found it hard to advance; in the Post Guild’s pay study, one veteran reporter said that while working as a foreign bureau chief, she found out that the man who held the job before her made $50,000 more than her despite having fewer years of experience at the Post. HuffPost also reported that Jehl was angered when one female foreign correspondent on contract asked for a raise, bringing up the fact that she was underpaid in comparison to her male counterparts. The next day, Jehl told her that her contract would not be renewed, and when the contractor outlined her treatment to Baron in an email, he said they were going to stick with the decision to let her go.

Under Jehl’s desk, female foreign correspondents would turn to each other as a kind of support group. Management has been aware of these issues. In 2018, a group of about eight current and former female correspondents coordinated bringing their complaints about sexism at the foreign desk to Barr. Sources say more women have been hired since those correspondents came forward but that little else has changed. Jehl remains head of the desk.

As of now, every editor named in Sonmez’s suit remains at the paper, with the exception of Baron. Montgomery, who allegedly made the “just say no” remark, was promoted by Buzbee to run the business desk in July. Barr was promoted to senior managing editor, effectively second-in-command, in October, while Grant was moved out of her managing-editor role to write full time. In part, superficial change is what Sonmez’s lawsuit attempts to call out. “I think the implicit, and probably explicit, argument in naming all of those folks is really calling to account a culture of leadership and calling for accountability from all the folks at the top,” Martin, the NWLC lawyer, said, “rather than suggesting that this is somehow depersonalized and separate from individual decision-makers that came together to make these calls.”

Or as Sonmez herself put it in a tweet when Barr was promoted, “Today’s Post story on staff changes at the paper makes no mention that Cameron Barr, the new No. 2 editor, is a defendant in a gender discrimination lawsuit. Weird omission! Almost like sexual assault survivors are treated differently at the paper …”

Baron, for his part, has suggested that the problems at the Post can be ironed out with better management. “Clearly we need to do a better job of listening,” he said in an exit interview with Vanity Fair when asked about how he dealt with race and speech as a manager. “I think I and others probably need to do more in anticipating these issues, perhaps listening better to the staff more closely, and then drawing people out before pressure builds and it explodes.”

The staff appears to be taking matters into its own hands. Over the past two years, membership in the Post Guild has shot up, from 35 percent to nearly 60 percent. “What happened with Felicia was a huge catalyst,” says Farzan, the former reporter. “People were saying that this is something the union is addressing: It doesn’t have to just be me versus the company — there’s a way I can challenge this. I definitely think that has drawn a lot of people” to the union.

So far, management has made no internal comment on the suit, which is expected to play out over the next few months at least. It has created an awkward situation for a group of folks used to holding the powerful accountable. As one Post staffer put it to me, “We’re constantly demanding and shaming governments and companies for not being transparent. And here we are, the least transparent about our own internal issues — it’s stunning that management doesn’t seem to recognize the hypocrisy in that.”

Inside Felicia Sonmez’s Lawsuit Against the Washington Post