By:
March 29, 2021

Politico Playbook’s Rachael Bade reports that a recent Washington Post town hall meeting on Zoom with hundreds of staffers “went off the rails briefly.” And the controversy grew even more over the weekend.

During the March 16 meeting on Zoom, the Post trumpeted its defense of reporter Seung Min Kim from anti-Asian internet trolls. Then another Post reporter, Felicia Sonmez, typed in the chat box, “I wish editors had publicly supported me in the same way.”

This goes back to something that happened a year ago. Right after basketball star Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash, Sonmez was suspended after tweeting out a reminder that Bryant was once accused of sexual assault. Eventually, the suspension was retracted after more than 300 Post staffers signed a letter in support of Sonmez, who had to leave her house after she received death threats. It should be noted that Sonmez has been public about being a sexual assault survivor.

There’s more to the story. Sonmez’s boss, Post national editor Steven Ginsberg, was quoted in a Vanity Fair article about the need to support female journalists against online harassment. Sonmez tweeted:

Wish the same Post editor who is quoted in this piece supported me when I was doxxed and had to leave my home. Instead, they were silent, and I was suspended. They continue to prevent me from fully doing my job, by barring me from covering sexual assault—an action so harmful that I haven’t been able to work for much of the past two weeks, am taking sick leave next week and have experienced a recurrence of the same debilitating symptoms that I had when I came forward about my assault 3 years ago. Yes, supporting your staff matters.” (She tagged Ginsberg in the tweet.)

According to Bade, Sonmez sent an email last May to senior management that said, “It is humiliating to again and again have to tell my colleagues and editors that I am not allowed to do my job fully because I was assaulted. I believe it’s important for you to know that The Post’s decision on this matter has had negative repercussions for me personally in the past. … it’s the tortured explanations I have to give whenever there is breaking news on this topic and I’m not allowed to cover it.”

Bade reports that Sonmez was told at that time that the Post did not want her on stories that involved sexual assault and the #MeToo movement and did not see her coverage parameters changing “anytime soon.”

On Sunday, Sonmez tweeted, “I’m not planning on going anywhere. The Washington Post needs to do better. I just want to do my job.” She then tagged several Post editors, including Ginsberg, managing editor Cameron Barr, deputy national editor Lori Montgomery and senior politics editor Peter Wallsten.

Later on Sunday, she sent more tweets describing her past week as well as additional thoughts. It included:

I was stunned to see that the same editor who has silenced me from defending myself online, said nothing when I had to leave my home amid threats and continues to bar me from fully doing my job was being quoted as an authority on protecting female journalists.

And:

This same editor was aware that his remarks at the 3/16 town hall had caused me deep distress, because my direct manager (@DonnaCassata, the lone editor who has advocated on my behalf) had told him and other members of senior management as much

At the heart of this controversy is whether Sonmez can cover issues involving sexual assault and the #MeToo movement. She has been very open and public about being a survivor of sexual assault.

All journalists have various life experiences that could impact how they cover certain stories and topics. But isn’t this why editors are in place? To make sure biases don’t come through?

To say Sonmez isn’t capable of covering stories involving sexual assault not only shows a lack of faith in her, but a lack of faith in editors who sign off on her work before publishing. One might even argue that Sonmez’s experiences could make her even more qualified than most to write about a sensitive topic such as sexual assault.

Sonmez tweeted Sunday:

The reason I’ve repeatedly been given by senior editors is that they are worried about “the appearance of a conflict of interest” if they allow me to write on sexual assault. They’ve told me they don’t believe there’s an actual conflict, or even that my writing would be biased in any way. I’ve sent them a long list of stories I’ve written that proves that’s not the case. This reason, I believe, makes no sense.

She added:

If I am attacked online by an army of misogynist trolls, that does not harm The Washington Post any more than my awesome colleague @seungminkim harms the Post by facing a relentless swell of racism online. Neither of us is less capable of doing our job due to our identity.

The Washington Post had no comment.

Birx’s comments

Dr. Deborah Birx in a photo from last September. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

There were plenty of intriguing moments in CNN’s documentary “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” which aired Sunday night. But the comments from Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator under President Donald Trump, stood out most.

Birx said most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. could have been prevented if the Trump administration acted sooner and smarter.

“I look at it this way: The first time, we have an excuse,” Birx said. “There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

Meanwhile, Birx said she knew she was being watched, and that people inside the White House were waiting for her to “make a misstep so that they could, I guess, remove me from the task force.”

Birx talked about what happened after an interview she gave to CNN last August. In that CNN piece, Birx talked about just how widespread the virus was, including rural areas of the country.

In Sunday night’s special, Birx said, “That was a very difficult time because everybody in the White House was upset with that interview and the clarity that I brought about the epidemic. “

Birx said Trump called her. When asked what Trump said, Birx said, “Well, I think you’ve heard other conversations that people have posted with the president. I would say it was even more direct than what people have heard. It was very uncomfortable, very direct and very difficult to hear.”

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who was interviewing Birx, asked if she was threatened. After a pause, Birx said, “I would say it was a very uncomfortable conversation.”

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Powerful opening comments

(Courtesy: NBC News)

You know how absurd things have become when The Onion — the satirical news site — best sums up what is happening in our country. As “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd pointed out, The Onion, sadly, has the perfect headline every time there is a mass shooting in the United States:

‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens

Todd followed up that dark sentiment by recounting just some of the recent mass shootings. He then said:

“After a high-profile incident, U.S. politicians follow their own ritual. Democrats say enough is enough — time to get an assault weapons ban passed. Republicans say enough about gun control, this is a mental health problem, and we need to protect the Second Amendment. And what happens? Nothing gets done. For a year, we’ve been obsessed with a pandemic and our medical system has done a brilliant job attacking that problem. But when it comes to our epidemic of gun violence, our political system has no answers.

Tribune weekend

For this item, I turn it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

The four-sided game to decide the future of Tribune Publishing has gained a fifth player. The New York Times reported over the weekend that a Swiss billionaire, Hansjörg Wyss, has joined Maryland hotel entrepreneur Stewart Bainum Jr. in mounting a last-minute upset bid for the company, saying he hoped to preserve good journalism at the company that owns the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and seven other metro papers.

Wyss told the Times that he has agreed to match Bainum in putting up $100 million each and borrowing another $450 million for an $18.50-a-share offer.

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital has bid $17.25 a share to take over Tribune Publishing, an offer the company has tentatively accepted and scheduled for a shareholder vote. As the rules for approval are written, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and his wife, owners of the Los Angeles Times, with a 24% stake in Tribune Publishing, have veto power.

Soon-Shiong, who reportedly lost more than $50 million in 2020 running the Times, thus has the choice of cashing in $150 million or taking his chances on holding out for a higher price.

Rebrand at MSNBC

(Courtesy: MSNBC)

In an effort to even more distinguish between hard news and perspective programming, MSNBC is rebranding its “MSNBC Live …” programming by calling it “MSNBC Reports.” The change starts today.

MSNBC isn’t changing the anchors, but the new name is meant to make clear that the anchors are reporters, while highlighting the work from correspondents and guest analysts who are there to go deeper into the news.

The schedule isn’t changing, but the names and looks will change. So as of today, the weekday schedule will be:

9 to 10 a.m. Eastern: “Stephanie Ruhle Reports”
10 to 11 a.m. Eastern: “Hallie Jackson Reports”
11 a.m. to noon Eastern: “Craig Melvin Reports”
Noon to 1 p.m. Eastern: “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern: “Meet the Press Daily.”
2 to 3 p.m. Eastern: “Katy Tur Reports”
3 to 4 p.m. Eastern: “Ayman Mohyeldin Reports”

An Athletic-Axios merger?

The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin had a big scoop last week: The sports site The Athletic is in discussions to merge with Axios. Mullin wrote the talks are in very early stages, could still fall apart and much is still unknown, such as financial terms and which company would take the lead role should there be such a merger. Should the group merge, they could form a Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation that could interest investors with the intention of adding more businesses to the company.

It’s unclear how any of this would work. The Athletic is an ad-free, subscription-based site, while Axios is free and relies on a more traditional advertising model. This will be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

He said what?

Yes, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham actually said this when pressed by “Fox News Sunday” moderator Chris Wallace on why we shouldn’t have a serious debate about assault-style weapons:

“I own an AR-15. If there’s a natural disaster in South Carolina where the cops can’t protect my neighborhood, my house will be the last one that the gang will come to, because I can defend myself.” Then Graham pivoted to talking about mental health.

Keeping the faith

People around the world will observe religious holidays this week, and so NBC News has a weeklong series called “Keeping the Faith.” It includes in-depth reports about all aspects of faith and will air across a variety of platforms, such as the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News” and MSNBC.

NBC News said the reporting will include an “exclusive interview with the highest-ranking woman in the Vatican, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on religious institutions, inside the efforts by Catholic sisters to combat human trafficking, interviews with faith leaders, and much more.”

Fox News: complaining and a complaint

Fox News’ Peter Doocy complained to White House press secretary Jen Psaki about not being called upon by President Joe Biden during last Thursday’s press conference. No one from The New York Times has complained to Psaki for not being called upon in the Biden press conference.

Meanwhile, speaking of Fox News, Donald Trump was on again over the weekend, appearing with Judge Jeanine Pirro on Saturday. Why is Fox News so intent on having the former president on so often? And if you can’t get Donald, one of the kids will do, apparently. Maria Bartiromo interviewed Eric Trump for “Sunday Morning Futures.” My only question: Why?

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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