Felicia Sonmez demanded that The Washington Post live up to the highest standard — zero tolerance for sexism. She wouldn’t allow the organization to tiptoe around an issue our industry has tiptoed around for far too long. That’s why she’s no longer a reporter there. Or at least, that’s how it looks from afar.
In fairness, it’s exceedingly difficult to get the full story on a personnel issue. Privacy concerns make it difficult for an employer to be fully transparent. The Post told those who reached out last week it wouldn’t comment. I reached out to Sonmez but haven’t heard back.
According to a leaked termination letter, Sonmez was fired for, among other things, “maligning your coworkers online and violating the Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.” That came after several days after an internal dispute spilled out onto Twitter when another reporter, David Weigel, retweeted a sexist joke, and Sonmez called him out for it. The termination letter also cited Sonmez’s “insubordination.” Sonmez kept tweeting about newsroom culture after executive editor Sally Buzbee sent an email trying to squash the public back-and-forth.
But insubordination is a tool of necessity, used by every trailblazing journalist or activist working to change an unjust system. Sonmez was an activist trying to improve an industry long saddled by sexism. Her sin was trying to raise the bar on how sexism is treated inside newsrooms and covered by the media.
She was relentless, uncomfortably so. It’s why she stood out on the day NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash. While other journalists were praising his basketball legacy, she reminded people about the complexity of Byrant’s life, including a sexual assault charge. For that, she was briefly suspended by The Post and pilloried by many inside the industry and out, for daring to speak an uncomfortable truth — precisely what journalists are supposed to do. For that, and because she spoke openly about her status as a survivor, The Post prevented Sonmez from covering sexual assault cases. It was an egregious decision that spoke volumes about just how deep the roots of sexism remain.
She spoke out before she sued The Post for that decision and kept speaking after her lawsuit was dismissed. While there have been reports that numerous colleagues supported her, at least initially, some grew tired of her persistence, or the form of that persistence. Colleagues began excoriating her for not being more judicious in her response to Weigel’s retweet. They wanted her to be quiet — with one simply tweeting “please stop” after another said she was “clout chasing and bullying” — apparently believing the issue had already been handled internally.
But maybe Sonmez understood what they didn’t: Changing a culture can feel like pulling teeth without anesthesia. The job isn’t complete with the hiring of a female executive editor or even an increase in women in other leadership positions any more than racism could be uprooted in the U.S. with the election of Barack Obama.
It’s tough sledding and requires stepping on the toes of people who don’t realize their toes need to be stepped on if long-term progress is to be achieved. It’s probably why many of Sonmez’s colleagues decided to get into the fray extolling the virtues of The Post. It likely is a great place to work for many, but not all the journalists there. Oftentimes, those most comfortable become unwitting barriers to progress. They see the virtues of the place they love and want others to see that, too — not messy internal disputes, and especially not implications that things aren’t equal or fair.
The Post served as a kind of touchstone for my entry into the news industry in the mid-to-late 1990s. As I was about to graduate from college, I was urged to read “Makes Me Wanna Holler” by then 40-year-old Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall. In many ways, it set my expectations for the industry. Those who urged me to read it focused on McCall’s struggles as he advanced in his journalism career as a Black man after a tough childhood, thinking that connected the two of us. A good deal of the book did. But not the chapter titled “Trains.” In it, McCall recounted his participation in numerous gang rapes, some of girls as young as 13.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, the “Trains” chapter never left me, even though other aspects of the book have. Given how hard it was just to read, I can’t imagine how horrific an experience it was for the young women brutalized in that way. I wonder how women journalists in the newsroom reacted to it. Could they stomach it? If they couldn’t, would they have been allowed to express their outrage and call out a colleague the way Sonmez called out Weigel for something far less egregious? The environment in the industry was such that a man’s star rose after admitting to gang rapes. The book became a bestseller. It got rave reviews, even as feminist groups and a few female journalists, such as Los Angeles Times columnist Robin Abcarian, noted the glossing over of the brutal treatment of women and extreme sexism.
I’ve assumed things would be handled differently today, that at the least there would be rigorous discussion and debate around the pervasiveness of sexism in newsrooms across the country. The role of redemption and free speech would be given consideration. Surely the voices of women would be centered — at least that’s what I thought until Sonmez was fired for demanding a high standard when it comes to sexism and went about it in a way that discomforted colleagues. I’m no longer sure.
Because no matter how we got here, as it stands, a male journalist was reportedly suspended without pay for one month after retweeting a sexist joke while a female journalist was fired for pointing out that sexism in a way that displeased colleagues. Unintentional or not, that’s the message that was sent last week. Be nice when a man displays a bit of sexism. Or be quiet.