It didn’t start with a retweet.
The controversy currently swirling around The Washington Post doesn’t go back days. It goes back years.
If you want to truly understand how one of the most respected news organizations in the world is smack dab in the middle of a hot mess, you can’t start with a high-profile reporter retweeting a sexist and homophobic tweet. You have to look at the history of the reporter who objected to that retweet and her relationship with the paper she works for, as well as the inconsistent social media policy of that paper.
And to do all that, you have to go back to at least 2018 when Brett Kavanaugh was a controversial nominee for the Supreme Court, controversial because of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. Post reporter Felicia Sonmez, a politics breaking news reporter, was told by her editors that she could not cover stories involving Kavanaugh because they felt it was a conflict of interest. How? Sonmez claimed it was because she had been open and public about being a survivor of sexual assault, but the Post said, and a judge later agreed, that it was because Sonmez had publicly engaged in advocacy regarding matters of sexual assault and harassment and the Post was concerned about her impartiality.
The Post’s policy was considered unusual — if not unheard of — in journalism circles. Even Post media writer Paul Farhi wrote so.
Fast-forward to January 2020 and the day basketball star Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. Soon after the news broke and tributes and remembrances poured in about Bryant, Sonmez used her Twitter feed to link to a 2016 Daily Beast story that recalled the 2003 rape allegations against Bryant. Marty Baron, who was the Post’s well-known executive editor at the time, put Sonmez on paid administrative leave, saying Sonmez “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”
The leave soon ended after more than 300 Post staffers signed a letter in support of Sonmez.
But by this point, the seeds of resentment between Sonmez and Post leadership had seemingly been planted.
Now let’s move to March 2021, when the Post finally reversed its decision and allowed Sonmez to write about stories involving sexual assault. But that decision was reversed only after Sonmez went on Twitter to voice her complaints about the Post’s policy.
It came to a head a few months later, in July 2021, when Sonmez sued the Post and several current and former top editors, alleging that she had suffered discrimination and retaliation. Sonmez’s suit said she had lost opportunities for career advancement and had experienced “economic loss, humiliation, embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, and the deprivation of her rights to equal employment opportunities.” She also claimed that she was retaliated against for speaking out publicly. (The lawsuit was dismissed in March of this year when a judge ruled that Sonmez had not demonstrated the paper showed “discriminatory motive” when it banned her from covering stories related to sexual harassment or misconduct, and that she was removed from such stories to uphold an image of unbiased news coverage. Sonmez is appealing that ruling.)
By this point, the situation was, at best, awkward between the paper and Sonmez. Questionable leadership decisions, including those from the now-retired Baron, a clunky social media policy and a reporter unafraid to go public with her criticism of the paper created a perfect storm that led us to last Friday and the controversy that is now captivating the media world, much to the delight of those who like to slam the so-called “mainstream media.”
So what happened Friday? Post reporter Dave Weigel retweeted a tweet from a social media personality that said, “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”
Sonmez took a screenshot of the retweet and tweeted, “Fantastic to work at a news outlet where retweets like this are allowed!”
However, some argue that it wasn’t allowed, not at all — evidenced by the fact that within an hour of his retweet on Friday, Weigel deleted it and apologized for it, and by Monday was suspended from the paper for a month without pay.
Then again, was it Sonmez’s tweet that spurred the Post to take swift action?
This also wasn’t the first social media controversy the Post had this year. In a February tweet, Micah Gelman, senior editor and head of Post Video, misidentified Post video technician Breanna Muir as Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers in March 2020. Gelman apologized publicly and privately. Regarding this latest incident, Muir hit reply all on a staff note from executive editor Sally Buzbee and praised Sonmez “for speaking out against harassment, discrimination and sexism.”
A month before that, another Post editor, Lori Montgomery, tweeted then deleted a tweet that criticized an SFGate column about retiring Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The column called Roethlisberger a “jackass” and mentioned how Roethlisberger had been accused of rape in the past. Montgomery tweeted, “The only interesting thing about this column is how easily disproven and completely FOS it is.”
Interestingly, Sonmez called out Montgomery’s tweet, tweeting, “Respectfully, @loriamontgomery, this @drewmagary column contains facts about sexual assault allegations against Ben Roethlisberger that the Washington Post’s own story backs up.”
Montgomery was given a verbal warning, and Sonmez has continued to call out — on Twitter — the inconsistencies of the Post’s social media policy.
And so here we are this week with the paper known for the kind of dogged reporting that uncovered the Watergate scandal swept up in a quagmire that has included a suspension, two memos from the executive editor, countless contentious and accusatory tweets and a narrative that the Post has a hostile and toxic work environment. In the week where a House Select Committee investigates the events of Jan. 6 — a story for which the Post won a prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Public Service — the dominant story about the Post is this soap opera. It was even a topic on Wednesday’s “The View.”
In the past 48 hours, the story has shifted slightly as more and more staffers are defending the Post’s workplace and showing frustration with Sonmez — not for calling out Weigel’s inappropriate retweet, but for continuing the conversation about it.
On Wednesday, I spoke to several well-established and respected journalists at the Post, both male and female, who wanted to make it clear: The Washington Post is a good place to work and not the toxic newsroom that this latest controversy might suggest. The Post staffers asked to speak on background and not have their names used, mostly because those who have publicly spoken up for the Post and questioned or challenged Sonmez have come under heavy criticism and been portrayed as insensitive.
“I think a lot of people at the Post are frustrated with the way all of this is unfolding,” one Post reporter told me. “Obviously, a lot of people strongly feel that this doesn’t represent the culture at the Post.”
This source continued, “It’s frustrating to have this person make these assertions broadly about the Post and imply and amplify this idea that there’s this great division and that the Post has this toxic work environment when that is not the case.”
And yet another said it goes well beyond newsroom bickering.
“This is affecting sourcing relationships,” they said, adding that sources have told them that they are hesitant to talk to the Post right now because of all the “drama.”
Another staffer, a woman, said they had talked to several female staffers who said they felt Sonmez had “taken it too far,” but they didn’t want to speak out because they didn’t want to “undermine” Sonmez.
“It’s just an unwinnable situation for everyone involved,” the staffer said.
Another unnamed staffer told Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, “I think Felicia initially was right — that was a gross Dave Weigel tweet, and we were all grateful she called attention to it. (The problem was in) continuing to make it an issue and go after more and more colleagues.”
Of all the staffers I talked to Wednesday, not one defended Weigel’s retweet, although one did say they wish Sonmez had taken her complaints to editors and stayed off Twitter. It has been reported that Sonmez first complained about Weigel’s retweet on an internal Slack channel and that National editor Matea Gold, in the same Slack channel, wrote that “The Post is committed to maintaining a respectful workplace for everyone” and “we do not tolerate demeaning language or actions.” But Sonmez went to Twitter just minutes after her Slack message.
Over the weekend, Post staffer Jose A. Del Real accused Sonmez on Twitter of “repeated and targeted public harassment of a colleague” and suggested she was “rallying the internet to attack (Weigel) for a mistake.”
Buzbee stepped in on Sunday, sending out a brief memo to staff saying they were expected to “treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online.”
One staffer told me Weigel has had a “questionable history” on social media, so his monthlong suspension might have been for an accumulation of poor decisions. It is also believed Weigel has been suspended once before for his social media use. Post officials would not discuss him or this matter.
Buzbee sent out another memo to staff on Tuesday — this one much longer and much more sternly worded, writing in part, “We do not tolerate colleagues attacking colleagues either face to face or online. Respect for others is critical to any civil society, including our newsroom. The newsroom social media policy points specifically to the need for collegiality.”
Buzbee added, “We know it takes bravery to call out problems. And we pledge to openly and honestly address problems brought to us.” She also said the Post will update its social media policy.
Meanwhile, Sonmez continued tweeting, including lengthy threads about the Post’s social media policy. Sonmez tweeted, “In early 2020, @stevenjay and @loriamontgomery, then the Post’s National and deputy National editors, commissioned an internal report on social media use in response to newsroom-wide outrage over my suspension. Two years later, nothing has changed.”
Washington Post media writer Jeremy Barr wrote, “The union that represents Post employees, the Washington Post Guild, has repeatedly lobbied for The Post to update the company’s social media policies, which the guild has described as ‘outdated’ and not sufficiently equitable, and repeated that call on Tuesday.”
As Sonmez continued tweeting, Post staffer Lisa Rein tweeted at Sonmez on Tuesday night to “Please stop.” Sonmez replied, “Please stop … requesting that tweets from a colleague falsely accusing me of ‘bullying’ and ‘clout chasing’ be taken down?”
Sonmez then added, “Do you have any idea of the torrent of abuse I’m facing right now?” Sonmez then included screenshots of some of the nasty attacks she has been receiving online.
The social media melee picked up throughout the week with many high-profile staffers defending the Post.
White House bureau chief Ashley Parker tweeted, “The Post is not perfect. No institution is. But I’m proud to work here. I love coming to work (almost) every single day, and knowing that my colleagues are collegial, collaborative and fun humans — not to mention talented journalists — who are always striving to do better.”
Reporter Amber Phillips tweeted, “Working at The Washington Post, I’m in awe almost every day how such talented journalists, from all backgrounds, can also be so collegial and thoughtful and caring. I love working here, and I love helping improve it.”
Investigative political reporter Josh Dawsey tweeted, “no institution is perfect, including the post. but the place is filled with many terrific people who are smart and collegial. i’m proud to work here.”
Those are just a few examples, but there were enough that some wondered if it was a coordinated effort to defend the Post.
But a staffer told me on Wednesday, “That was ridiculed by a lot of people as being some kind of contrived messaging operation, but I have no reason to believe it was anything other than an organic expression of how people feel about this newsroom.”
Meanwhile, some Post staffers and others in the journalism world took to Twitter to stand by Sonmez, who tweeted, “I often hear from colleagues who want to say something but are afraid to speak out. Knowing how the Post punished me for my own trauma — and how a colleague publicly accused me of ‘bullying’ for flagging a sexist tweet — I don’t blame them for being afraid of retaliation.”
Sonmez was referring to her history with the Post.
“Look,” one staffer told me Wednesday, “there’s no question she was treated (crappy) in the past by the Post. What they did to her was wrong. … But that and what’s happening now are two different situations, in my opinion.”
Another Post staffer said, “That wasn’t right, and most everybody I know at the Post was in her corner on that. They handled that poorly.”
And some are questioning whether Post leadership is handling this situation as well as it can.
“It’s a real s— show,” one staffer said.
The Post is not commenting beyond a statement from Post communications chief Kris Coratti Kelly, who said, “While we have not commented publicly, this is being addressed directly with the individuals involved.”
When reached Wednesday evening, Sonmez declined to comment.
What can Buzbee do now?
“It’s a really good question,” one staffer said. “I don’t think there’s any really good options here. There’s obviously a lot of hard feelings involving the person who is spearheading this. I don’t know how this goes away. But I just want it known that the Post is a good place to work, and I think most of my colleagues feel that way.”
Correction: This story has been updated to note that the reason The Washington Post says it took Felicia Sonmez off covering stories involving Brett Kavanaugh and other sexual assault stories was because she publicly advocated in matters regarding sexual assault and harassment, not because she was just public about being a sexual assault survivor.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.