In his new memoir, former Washington Post editor Martin “Marty” Baron delivers a scathing assessment of the newsroom drama that eventually led to the controversial firing of star reporter Felicia Sonmez last year.
Baron details how Sonmez’s behavior on Twitter irked him throughout his final years as the Post’s executive editor. Her tweets about her experiences with sexual assault, along with attacking the Post, her fellow colleagues, and other reporters particularly enraged him, as did her posts referencing Kobe Bryant’s rape allegations on the day of the basketball star’s death. It was her comments on sexual assault that led to the ban on her covering it, he writes in the book.
The tumultuous tango between employer and employee prompted Sonmez to file a discrimination lawsuit against the paper and, eventually, ended in her firing last year in a reckoning that involved a staff revolt and an overhaul of the paper’s social media policies. Oral arguments in that lawsuit’s appeal are set for November.
“It was hard to fathom why smart people couldn’t exercise more self-control,” Baron writes about Sonmez in his new book, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post, which is out Oct. 3. “Most of the time, staffers were merely told to delete an offending tweet and be more prudent. Most of the time, they expressed regret, committed to observing the rules, and sought to move on. And then there was our most notable exception: Felicia Sonmez, who ultimately opted to file a lawsuit against The Post and six top editors, including me, citing restrictions on what she could cover because of her nonstop social media commentary.”
“I look forward to making our case to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals on November 16,” Sonmez said in a statement. “In our briefs in that appeal, and in the arguments that will be made on November 16, we thoroughly respond to the points raised in Mr. Baron’s book.” Sonmez said Baron did not reach out to her before publishing to provide notice or seek a response.
It’s the first time Baron has spoken at length about the Post’s experiences with Sonmez under his tenure, which ended in February 2021. His frustration with Sonmez over her tweeting habits is perhaps not surprising, as Baron made his distaste for Twitter evident for years. His tweets, from a Twitter username still tied to his Post persona, are infrequent, and he has posted sparingly on the platform since its Muskified rebrand to X.
“None of this was normal behavior for Post journalists, regardless of the trauma or injustice they experienced in their personal lives.”
Sonmez isn’t the only target of Baron’s ire: In the hefty tome, a copy of which was obtained and reviewed by The Daily Beast prior to its publication date, Baron discusses his annoyance with how multiple Post journalists operated on Twitter, seemingly skating by the Post’s policies on social media conduct.
He recounts his disapproval of reporters Wesley Lowery and David Weigel and their behavior on the platform. He took issue with how Lowery was outspoken on Twitter and often “became the story,” such as when Lowery called media outlets “cowardly” for not describing some of then-President Trump’s comments in July 2019 as racist. (“Deliberativeness isn’t cowardice,” Baron writes). Following Lowery’s comments on a New York Times story on the GOP Tea Party and about Maureen Dowd, he received a disciplinary letter that warned of his potential firing if he continued commenting on “what, by any reasonable reading, would be viewed as your political opinions.”
Baron wrote that it was standard legal language and that Lowery’s claim that Baron tried to fire him was a “high-drama overstatement” of an early disciplinary approach.
“We had no intention to ‘muzzle’ Wes, as he later characterized it,” Baron wrote. “But we weren’t going to back off standards that governed how The Post’s journalists handled themselves in public settings.”
He also noted the Post under his tenure was frustrated with Weigel’s tweets that irked some Democrats and Republicans alike, imposing a rule that Weigel needed to clear his tweets with editors prior to posting. (Neither reporter is still working for the Post; Weigel left in September 2022, three months after he received a one-month suspension, and Lowery left in January 2020 for CBS.)
Weigel, who now works for Ben Smith’s media startup Semafor, told The Daily Beast it was an understanding with Post editors that he had to clear his tweets, not a written policy, and it lasted for a limited time. Lowery did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Sonmez’s lawsuit against Baron and the Post was dismissed early last year, though oral arguments in her appeal will begin in November. Her firing has also been appealed through the Post’s editorial union, and the case has also been raised with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB case is currently pending.
Baron’s book goes beyond press statements and legal briefs to opine on all the things he couldn’t talk about while at the Post. Baron starts by recounting his and the Post’s experience with Sonmez during his tenure as executive editor. Sonmez was hired without Baron’s initial involvement, he says, as “for some reason” he was unavailable as she went through the interview process. But national editors had vouched for Sonmez due to her lengthy resume, including past Post experience, “so I gave my go-ahead,” he writes.
Baron acknowledges that the Post was aware during the interview process that Sonmez was a sexual assault survivor, as she had come forward earlier in the year with allegations of misconduct against Jonathan Kaiman, a then-editor at the Los Angeles Times. He recounts how Sonmez came forward about her experiences and details the public accounting of them at length, along with Kaiman’s denials.
Still, her social-media behavior clearly irked him, as it contradicted the standards he said he believed journalists should hold online. He notes examples of Sonmez criticizing different reporters online, including one where she suggested an employer “reconsider its association” with a reporter who tweeted something she felt was directed at her.
“She portrayed herself as carrying the torch for other women accusers,” Baron writes about Sonmez’s behavior. “All of this involved her personal life, and yet she pinned one of her tweets about it to the top of the Twitter account she used in her professional capacity at The Post, mixing personal and business matters. Despite newsroom managers’ requests, she declined for weeks to remove the tweet. None of this was normal behavior for Post journalists, regardless of the trauma or injustice they experienced in their personal lives.”
Baron writes that the Post placed no restrictions on Sonmez at the time, but during Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings in 2018—where he was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford—Sonmez gave a statement about Kaiman’s firing to The New York Times. While the Post’s legal team approved the statement, at that point, Baron wrote that he and Sonmez’s editors felt some action was needed.
“Her immediate supervisors and our standards editor concluded that she could not simultaneously engage in that sort of public advocacy while also covering the nation’s most high-profile dispute over sexual assault allegations—or anything similar,” Baron writes of her 2018 sexual-assault coverage ban.
Sonmez’s second coverage ban came in 2019 after her tweets requesting corrections in a 2019 Reason magazine article that suggested Kaiman was unfairly punished. That ended in March 2021, a month after Baron left the Post. At the time, Baron writes, senior newsroom leaders permitted her to cover stories involving sexual assault, and “to placate staff, they also acceded to her public insistence on an apology” from Post management. Those editors, Baron writes, told Sonmez in a letter they saw “the ways in which we should have supported you more than we did.” Sonmez got that apology on March 31, two days after the ban was dropped.
“Having retired, I didn’t participate in the decision to write that letter,” Baron writes. “It wasn’t one I would have sent. We had enforced traditional journalistic standards to safeguard The Post’s reputation. That’s not something I would ever apologize for.”
Baron also chastises Sonmez for her behavior the day Kobe Bryant died in January 2020. After news emerged that the basketball legend had perished alongside his daughter and other families in a helicopter crash, Sonmez had tweeted an old Daily Beast story that detailed the 2003 rape allegations against Bryant. (He was charged with rape but the suit was later dropped when the accuser refused to testify.) Her tweet led to a deluge of security threats that prompted a Post security detail for Sonmez.
“She needlessly stirred up animosity toward The Post when people were grieving and in shock, many having just learned the news,” he writes. “She had injected herself crassly into a story that no one at The Post had asked her to cover or comment upon. She had seized on Kobe Bryant’s death to press a cause closer to her heart. To me, her tweet was atrociously timed and conceived.”
While Baron acknowledges that Sonmez was facing a barrage of threats, even after management had advised her to delete her initial tweet, he writes that the security team investigating them was “expressing exasperation that her irrepressible Twitter activity was merely drawing additional threats.”
“My management colleagues and I could have ignored her tweet about Kobe Bryant, sparing ourselves internal conflict, but my view was that her behavior was reckless and offensive,” Baron writes. “Post policies urged respect for ‘taste and decency.’”
Baron’s annoyance represents the schism that has roiled newsrooms like the Post since social media, and especially Twitter, took hold.
During his tenure as executive editor, he was vocal about how reporters should conduct themselves on the platform, and his sentiment seemed to be shared among his top-editor class. Dean Baquet told New York Times staffers in a memo early last year to spend less time on Twitter, arguing it was “especially harmful to our journalism when our feeds become echo chambers.”
While Sonmez and other journalists’ tweets frustrated Baron, it was social media itself—and the way it often undermined the news standards he had upheld throughout his career—that gave him the most headaches, he writes. It’s what partially prompted him to leave the responsibility of creating a new social-media policy to his successor.
“One person’s desire for self-expression should not take priority over the institution’s right to protect its reputation by setting limits,” he wrote. “Journalists in the news department should not use Twitter accounts associated with The Post to advocate for causes close to their heart, no matter how meritorious.”
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