Washington Post suspends reporter after Kobe Bryant rape allegation tweet

Her tweet came shortly after the stunning news that Bryant had died at age 41 in a helicopter crash in the Los Angeles area.
Image: Kobe Bryant leaves a court hearing on sexual assault charges in Eagle, Colo., on April 27, 2004.
Kobe Bryant leaves a court hearing on sexual assault charges in Eagle, Colo., on April 27, 2004.Ed Andrieski / Getty Images file

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A Washington Post reporter has been suspended after she tweeted an old article about Kobe Bryant being accused of rape, shortly after the news of the NBA legend's death broke.

Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter for The Post, on Sunday afternoon tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast article with the headline "Kobe Bryant's Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser's Story, and the Half-Confession."

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Her tweet came in the moments after the stunning news broke that Bryant had died at age 41 in a helicopter crash in the Los Angeles area. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people also died in the crash.

Sonmez later deleted the tweet and others, defending her decision to share the article. "Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure beloved and that totality upsetting," Sonmez wrote.

She also tweeted a screenshot of hate mail she had received for the tweets, including the names of the senders. That tweet has also now been deleted.

One of The Washington Post's managing editors, Tracy Grant, said in a statement released to NBC News on Monday that Sonmez "was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom's social media policy."

"The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues," Grant said.

The Post did not specify which tweets prompted the suspension or which social media policy she violated.

Sonmez's tweet prompted swift outrage Sunday, and many called for her to be fired.

"@washingtonpost You need to fire Felicia Sonmez asap! Her tweets about Kobe Bryant after he & other victims died in a tragic helicopter crash are beyond insensitive. They are cold hearted & show no respect for his family/friends. Parents & children died today for Christ sake!" one person tweeted.

"Is the Washington Post going to fire Felicia Sonmez for this heartless tweet or does the paper condone her actions after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant?" asked another.

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.

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Many people expressed equal outrage that The Post had decided to put Sonmez on leave.

The Washington Post "should reinstate Felicia Sonmez. An overreaction to the keyboard warriors. While you can debate the timing of the tweets, it's a relevant detail to the life of Kobe Bryant. A newspaper silencing a journalist sets a terrible example," one person wrote.

Sonmez also picked up an influential supporter on the paper's staff, with media critic Erik Wemple writing an opinion column for The Post taking editors to task for this "misguided suspension."

Wemple, who also reported that Sonmez was forced to stay in a hotel Sunday night because her home address was outed online by those upset with her retweet, said the reporter did nothing wrong in pointing out the 2003 incident.

"The backlash that alighted upon Sonmez stems from the ancient wisdom that urges folks not to speak ill of the dead," Wemple wrote.

"It's a fine rule for everyone except for historians and journalists, upon whom the public relies to provide warts-and-all look-backs on the lives of influential people. Bryant clearly qualifies, as does the particular incident that Sonmez was flagging in her tweet."

Sonmez previously came forward with allegations of sexual assault against the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief. The bureau chief was suspended and then resigned amid the allegations.

The Washington Post Newspaper Guild released a statement expressing its "dismay" over the decision to suspend Sonmez, specifically citing her history as a survivor of assault.

"Felicia received an onslaught of violent messages, including threats that contained her home address, in the wake of a tweet Sunday regarding Kobe Bryant," the union said. "Instead of protecting and supporting a reporter in the face of abuse, The Post placed her on administrative leave."

The statement was signed by over 160 of Sonmez's colleagues at the Post.

"The Post's handling of this issue shows utter disregard for best practices in supporting survivors of sexual violence — including the practices we use in our own journalism," the statement continued. "We urge The Post to immediately provide Felicia with a security detail and take whatever other steps are necessary to ensure her safety, as it has done in the past when other reporters were subject to threats."

RAIIN, the anti-sexual violence organization based in Washington, D.C., said it was "deeply concerned by The Washington Post’s actions in placing Felicia Sonmez on administrative leave for sharing an article detailing an allegation of sexual assault in Kobe Bryant’s past.”

"While we don’t diminish Bryant’s professional accomplishments, it is disrespectful to survivors — and history — to pretend that the sexual assault allegation never happened," the statement said. "We are grateful to Sonmez’s colleagues for speaking out against her treatment and in support of victims of sexual violence, and urge the Post to reinstate her immediately.”

CORRECTION (Jan. 28, 2020, 8 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Sonmez's previous employment. She did not work at the Los Angeles Times.

David K. Li contributed.