Kobe Bryant didn’t want you to know what he did to a teenager the night of June 30, 2003. Now, in the aftermath of his death, The Washington Post doesn’t want you to know either.
“When he took off his pants that’s when I started to kinda back up, and try to push his hands off me and that’s when he started to choke me. He wasn’t choking me enough that I couldn’t breathe, just choking me to the point that I was scared.”
On July 1st, 2003, the following day, the nineteen-year-old victim gave this statement to the police, describing a violent rape by Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was 25 at the time. The accuser’s full account was detailed in an article by The Daily Beast in 2016, over three years before his death in a tragic helicopter crash on Sunday. The crash killed a total of nine people, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
In the wake of his death, fans started an outpouring of remembrance in honor of his NBA legacy. Mourners flooded the Staples Center in Los Angeles, bringing flowers, candles, and heartfelt messages.
“Kobe was a huge part of my life growing up. He was like the guy I looked up to besides my dad,” one mourner said. The impact of Bryant on young men, especially black men, who looked up to him has been a common theme at the memorials and on social media.
Apparently we’re all just supposed to forget that this “inspiration,” who provided a “role model” for young boys, was a rapist.
“Then he held me by my neck and physically forced me over to the side of the couch. That’s when he continually had one hand around my neck and with his other hand pushed me over to the side of the two chairs um, turned me around and bent me over and lifted up my skirt.”
Some women weren’t ready to forget, though. When Felicia Sonmez, a political reporter at The Washington Post, tweeted a link to the Daily Beast article, the backlash was swift. Sonmez is a survivor of sexual assault herself, and has been open about her experience, which bears striking similarities to what Bryant’s accuser has described:
“I told him no but he forcefully continued until I was able to physically pull him away. He then began unbuckling his belt and pulling down his shorts. We were on a public street, it was dark and no one was around. Jon is much bigger than me, and it took me repeatedly telling him no and pushing him away for him to finally stop. Whenever I think about that night, it gives me chills to think of that moment and imagine what he would have done if I hadn’t been able to get him to stop.”
In her tweet, Sonmez simply restated the headline of the 2016 article:
In response, Sonmez reportedly received over 10,000 comments and emails from fans containing abuse, death threats, and doxing. Someone posted her home address, and she was forced to check into a hotel for safety. She published screenshots of some of the abuse she received, and stated that the experience had been “eye-opening.”
Sonmez contacted her editors to let them know about the threats she was receiving, and, according to an Op-Ed posted by fellow Post reporter, Erik Wemple, Sonmez was given no support or guidance in protecting her safety, but rather was only directed to take down the tweets. She complied, and the tweets have all been removed.
Shortly after, she was contacted by Tracy Grant, Post Managing Editor, and told she was being placed on administrative leave. The reasons she was given were that the tweets here outside her “coverage area,” and that “your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.”
Wemple explained why these excuses were illogical:
“One, if journalists at The Post are prone to suspension for tweeting stories off their beats, the entire newsroom should be on administrative leave. Two, the contention that sharing a link to a news article complicates the work of others requires supporting evidence.”
He also outlines The Post’s social media guidelines and argues that Sonmez was not only clearly within them, but should have been commended by The Post for upholding their journalistic standards including an obligation to “tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it.” Apparently “all the truth” doesn’t matter when the person in question is a beloved sports player.
The Washington Post Guild, the unionized arm of Post employees, released a statement Monday in support of Sonmez. The open letter acknowledges that Sunday was a “fraught time to share reporting about past accusations of sexual assault,” but goes on to condemn the actions taken by The Post against Sonmez:
“But we believe it is our responsibility as a news organization to tell the public the whole truth as we know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely.”
The Guild also mentions that in 2018, when Sonmez came forward about the sexual assault she experienced, The Post made no attempt to protect or defend her against articles in other outlets that attacked her. The Guild urged Grant and Marty Baron, Executive Editor at The Post, to educate themselves on sexual assault and working with survivors.
The use of vague social media policies to silence and punish women who speak out on unpopular issues is becoming increasingly common. Being fired (or placed on “administrative leave”) usually comes in response to a social media mob — which employers seem increasingly unwilling to resist.
According to the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, women are targetted for online harassment in a way that is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from how men experience online abuse:
“Women, the majority of the targets of some of the most severe forms of online assault — rape videos, extortion, doxing with the intent to harm — experience abuse in multi-dimensional ways and to greater effect. They are the vast majority of the victims of nonconsensual pornography, stalking, electronic abuse and other forms of electronically-enhanced violence.”
Female journalists and writers are the most common targets. This gendered harassment can have real consequences, both personal and professional. WMC also argues, though, that online harassment is a civil rights issue because fear of internet harassment is increasingly preventing women from participating in the public sphere, stating, “Research shows that women silence themselves, opt out of doing certain work, avoid certain topics, are fearful and restrict their level of public engagement.”
Felicia Sonmez remains on administrative leave, and The Washington Post becomes complicit in the silencing of women — even one of their own.
Update, 5:29pm, Jan 28:
The Washington Post has reinstated Sonmez on Tuesday afternoon. In a statement, Grant stated:
“After conducting an internal review, we have determined that, while we consider Felicia’s tweets ill-timed, she was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.”