Felicia Sonmez, a national politics reporter for the Washington Post, says she’s barred from covering stories related to sexual misconduct at the paper because she has been vocal about being a survivor of assault herself.
According to Politico, leadership at the publication implemented the ban in 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford came forward with sexual assault allegations against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Sonmez says it was temporarily lifted before being reinstated in late 2019.) Most recently, the ban has reportedly prevented Sonmez from covering news that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is also a survivor of assault, which she briefly mentioned in a February Instagram Live, as well as the mounting allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. And just last week, Sonmez had to drop a story involving Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, who announced a Senate bid after resigning three years ago following accusations of sexual assault and abuse. Sonmez also said she had to tell her editor she couldn’t report on the Violence Against Women Act.
Being forced to take herself off of these stories, Sonmez said, triggered a “trauma response” for her, with symptoms recalling those that resulted from coming forward about her sexual assault three years ago.
“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,” Sonmez wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “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.”
“I’m not planning on going anywhere,” she wrote earlier that day. “The Washington Post needs to do better.” (Jezebel has reached out to Sonmez and Cameron Barr, the Post’s acting executive editor, for comment. We’ll update this blog if we hear back.)
Politico reports that Sonmez wrote to senior management at the Post in May, urging the paper’s top editors to allow her the freedom to cover timely stories without being penalized for being a sexual assault survivor—in other words, to do her job. “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,” Sonmez wrote in an email obtained by the site. “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. [I]t’s the tortured explanations I have to give whenever there is breaking news on this topic and I’m not allowed to cover it.”
Sonmez is speaking out about the restrictions on her reporting at the same time as she is criticizing the Post for not supporting her last year, when the paper temporarily suspended her for tweeting a link to an article about rape allegations against Kobe Bryant in the wake of his death. The suspension reportedly came after Sonmez went to her editors about the barrage of threats, harassment, and doxxing she was experiencing online, seeking help.
At the time, the Post’s decision to suspend Sonmez and leave her more vulnerable seemed sexist and cruel; with the added context, even more so. For newspaper editors to ban a reporter from covering a topic related to their personal experience—particularly with a topic so broad and an experience so common—reveals how easily the supposedly noble pursuit of “objectivity” can be warped. In this most recent case at the Post, it appears to have been twisted into an object designed to restrain a reporter from doing her job. When stretched to this extreme, the possibilities for a reporter to have “conflicts of interest” with the subject of their reporting appear infinite. Can someone who has experienced police brutality report on police brutality? Can someone who has experienced racist attacks cover racism? These are ridiculous questions—the answers being yes and yes—but they’re ones raised by the Post’s apparent editorial standards.
The idea that Sonmez cannot conduct her reporting fairly and accurately due to an aspect of her identity is insulting. It is also revealing: Whom does the Post trust to tell these stories instead?
Update, 3/29/21, 2:45 p.m.: Kristine Coratti Kelly, Chief Communications Officer at the Washington Post, tells Jezebel:
“Following a newsroom discussion two weeks ago, editors began re-evaluating limitations on the scope of Felicia’s work as a breaking-news reporter. They have concluded such limitations are unnecessary.”