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Washington Post reverses suspension of reporter who tweeted about Kobe Bryant

A managing editor wrote that while the reporter's tweets were "ill-timed," she was not in "clear and direct violation of our social media policy."
Kobe Bryant left court after his first court appearance on charges of sexual assault in Eagle, Colorado, on Nov. 13, 2003.M. Spencer Green / AP file

The Washington Post has reversed its widely criticized decision to suspend one of its reporters over her tweets about Kobe Bryant.

One of the paper's managing editors, Tracy Grant, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that while reporter Felicia Sonmez's tweets were "ill-timed," she was not in "clear and direct violation of our social media policy."

Sonmez responded to the reversal with a statement Tuesday night calling for an explanation from The Post's executive editor, Marty Baron.

"I believe that Washington Post readers and employees, including myself, deserve to hear directly from Marty Baron on the newspaper's handling of this matter," Sonmez said in a tweet.

The Post's decision to undo the suspension came amid public pressure from Post staffers, as well as other journalists and media critics who criticized the paper and its leadership for what they saw as an overreaction.

In the wake of Bryant's death on Sunday, Sonmez, a national political reporter for The Post, tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article with the headline "Kobe Bryant's Disturbing Rape Case."

Bryant was accused in 2003 of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado. He was charged with rape, but the case was dropped after the accuser declined to testify. A civil suit was later settled.

Bryant, who married Vanessa Laine in 2001, admitted to having had sex with the woman but insisted that it was consensual.

Sonmez's tweet was widely criticized by other Twitter users as being insensitive to Bryant, who died along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people in a helicopter crash. Sonmez said she got abuse and death threats and checked into a hotel that night, fearing for her safety.

Sonmez was then placed on administrative leave. In a statement about the suspension, Grant said, "The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues."

Minutes earlier, Baron had sent Sonmez an email, obtained by The New York Times and confirmed by NBC News: "Felicia. A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You're hurting this institution by doing this."

Sonmez's suspension and Baron's curt email confounded many Post staffers, sources at the paper told NBC News. Her tweet linked to a credible report about the previous charges against Bryant, and she did not appear to be in violation of The Post's social media policy.

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The Post's media critic, Erik Wemple, called Baron's decision "misguided" and noted in the newspaper's opinion section that The Post itself had published a similar report about the allegations.

Other journalists were similarly dumbstruck. Recode's Peter Kafka said it was "ridiculous that the Post penalized its reporter for acknowledging that Bryant, in addition to being beloved by many people, was credibly accused of rape."

Daily Beast media reporter Max Tani noted on Twitter that the paper's "only explanation was she was tweeting off her beat (everyone does that) and making it hard for other WaPo reporters to do their jobs (but they won't explain how tweeting a factual article made others lives harder)."

In her statement Tuesday, Grant said, "Reporters on social media represent The Washington Post, and our policy states 'we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence.'

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

Sonmez called for further answers, expressing skepticism about the paper's rationale.

"Washington Post journalists endeavor to live up to the paper's mission statement, which states, 'The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world,'" she said in her statement Tuesday night. "My suspension, and Mr. Baron's Jan. 26 email warning me that my tweets about a matter of public record were 'hurting this institution,' have unfortunately sown confusion about the depth of management's commitment to this goal.

"I hope Washington Post newsroom leaders will not only prioritize their employees' safety in the face of threats of physical harm but also ensure that no journalist will be punished for speaking the truth."