The Washington Post’s social media policy still doesn’t make sense

Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was put in a precarious situation by her superiors. 

Again. 

In early January, Post editor Lori A. Montgomery called an article critical of an alleged sexual abuser, among other things, “easily disproven” and “completely [full of shit].”

While any other media worker may have simply ignored the tweet, Sonmez had reason not to: Montgomery wasn’t just somebody she shared an office with — she is a defendant in a lawsuit Sonmez brought against the Post and other managing staff in July 2021, alleging discrimination that resulted in a hostile work environment.

According to Sonmez’s lawsuit, after she publicly accused another journalist of sexually assaulting her in 2017, she was denied multiple assignments that directly dealt with sexual assault. Around that time, the suit states that Montgomery “told Ms. Sonmez that she was always taught that a woman should ‘just say no’ if a man tries to assault her.” The effects the lawsuit has had on the Post’s newsroom were documented in November by New York Magazine’s Intelligencer. (Neither Washington Post Communications, nor a lawyer working on Sonmez’s case, Sundeep Hora, responded to a request for comment.)

Under former Post executive editor Marty Baron and national editor Steven Ginsburg, Montgomery was the deputy national editor at the Post in 2017. Baron was succeeded by Sally Buzbee in February 2021 and Montgomery was promoted to Business Editor the same month Sonmez’s suit was filed. (Tracy Grant, the then-Managing Editor of Standards and another defendant in the suit, also received a new role this month that has left that role vacant at the paper.)

Montgomery eventually deleted her tweet and said in two tweets the next day that she came to “deeply regret” her “poorly-framed tweet.” Soon after, the Post told the Washingtonian that Montgomery’s “tweet was inappropriate, and the issue has been addressed internally.” The Wall Street Journal reported that Buzbee told Post employees they had issued a “verbal warning” to Montgomery as a form of reprimand. The Post also issued a public statement saying that it will have new guidance for its social media policy once a new standards editor is appointed, a process they told the Washingtonian “will be done with staff input.”

The incident is indicative of the cracks growing in the glass obstacle course journalistic institutions have built around social media. Journalists, like Sonmez, have their social media activity policed and scrutinized by current and prospective managers, many facing punishment under social media policies — even when they make simple, factually accurate statements in posts. Meanwhile, others working in the same newsroom or organization — even managers who enforce the social media policies — do not always get held to the same standard.

The industry altogether is in pursuit of a simply stated, yet thus-far elusive goal: figuring out what standards media workers should maintain when they use digital platforms.

Consider that Montgomery’s statements were made in a tweet, not an article. Consider that fans often divorce sports from power dynamics about race or gender. Especially consider that Montegomery, too, has talked about her experience with sexual assault. 

It’s also worth considering that Montgomery is an editor who makes managerial decisions at one of the most influential publications in the country and her track record at the Post, which includes upholding strict standards regarding activity on social media, propelled her into a promotion.

Just as it is arguable that Montgomery’s post was a human mistake and didn’t warrant serious punishment, it is also obvious that other media workers (like Sonmez, let alone the rest of the Post staff) are not afforded the same considerations — even when they present facts, truthful remarks, or sensible observations.  

This is a growing issue new to many newsrooms, but not to Sonmez. In January 2020, following Kobe Bryant’s death, she tweeted a 2016 Daily Beast report about charges the late athlete faced for sexual assault, which were settled. She was initially suspended following the tweet, a decision that drew heavy criticism — including from the paper’s own Opinion section. Her suspension was eventually reversed, but online attacks caused Sonmez to leave her home for her safety.

Staffers at at the Post, including former reporter Wesley Lowery, have long taken issue with management’s interpretation and loose enforcement of the policy (Lowery notably said it is “broken daily” in a letter to management). In 2019, Baron threatened to fire Lowery over his tweets, including one about a New York Times story focused on the Tea Party, which Lowery argued was “essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president.”

These issues are also not unique to the Post; Management at the New York Times has a notoriously stringent policy that is supposed to “apply to everyone in every department of the newsroom,” though at times it seems to be directed at freelancers, Washington-based reporting staff, and employees of color; other times, it seems not applied to star reporters, Opinion staff, and other high profile employees. Times editors responsible for the policy have even complained about having to enforce it

The online landscape for media workers remains largely fluid, but the consequences — the potential of losing one’s job or reputation in an already volatile, financially struggling industry amidst the pandemic — are dire. Managers, too, are placed with the burden of policing their employees’ civility on the internet, something they may have little understanding or direct experience with. People of color and those without college degrees are already largely excluded from newsrooms, LGBTQ+ media or reporting is in serious decline, and women remain underrepresented in newsrooms and reporting conducted by them. With policing of their self-expressions online becoming standard, diverse media workers are proving most vulnerable to the shifting rules.

The situation is even more muddled when it comes to social media and sports journalism. Often, sports coverage avoids addressing “real” issues (i.e. racism, discrimination, misogyny, etc.) because sports are assumed to be an escape from the rest of the world. When its intersection with other issues of life is acknowledged, it is frequently met with resistance or disdain from sports executives, players, and/or fans.

That was the case with the article Montgomery responded to, which SFGate columnist Drew Magary wrote about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is retiring from the NFL. In his column, Magary mentioned Roethlisberger’s multiple sexual assault allegations, among other publicly reported instances depicting Roethlisberger’s behavior, and deemed him a “jackass.” While most sports publications, especially those with direct relationships with the NFL, have spent the last year — and prior — avoiding mention of Roethlisberger’s actions,  they are a public matter of record. Roethlisberger has not only acknowledged but apologized and accepted NFL-placed punishment for some of these acts. 

Roethlisberger isn’t solely a sports figure either. As mentioned by Magary — he was an associate of former President Donald Trump, and played a role in the then-celebrity’s relationship with adult entertainer Stormy Daniels.

Montgomery’s tweet included a link to a story from TribLIVE, a Southwest Pennsylvania news site, featuring quotes from players for the Baltimore Ravens, , the Steelers’ rivals, as they “pay tribute” to Roethlisberger while describing his character. By contrast, it did not mention any of his past controversies, nor did it debunk or challenge any of the factual statements presented in Magary’s article. (Montgomery is a noted Steelers fan and a native of Butler County, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.)

Montgomery also chose to post her comments after Magary had already received clear, viscerally negative responses to his column, which Sonmez pointed out in a later tweet

Considering the Post’s past record with regulating its employees’ online behavior, there are clear inconsistencies in its response to Montgomery versus others. Montgomery appeared to deny Post-reported facts about an ex-president’s associate and joined in rampant criticism of another member in the media, and that did not warrant serious punishment. But Lowery’s comments about race in America got a vitriolic response from management that led to what he amounted to being “threatened” over his tweets. Sonmez’s tweet about Bryant presented a direct quote from reported facts, and that ended with an eventually rescinded suspension — and a personal condemnation from the uppermost editorial staff member.

Consider the position Sonmez is in, and has remained in, for the last few years. She discussed her experience with sexual assault, and since then, has had her assignments limited, her experience indirectly challenged, and her work and statements publicly questioned — not just by anyone, but by her own workplace. Rather than engaging in introspection, multiple people that managed Sonmez have been promoted by not one, but now two different managing editors. 

It’s hard to imagine how the Post reconciles these inconsistencies, without accepting that their disciplinary decisions here were not weighed based on how they affected the paper’s reputation, but something more personal or arbitrary. While the paper seems to turn its back on reporters when they speak up about injustices or criminal actions, editors also seem to speak up against those that do — all while they have received promotions and maintained the power to evaluate employees. 

Most public instances of punishment over social media are not over discriminatory statements, inaccurate language, or unprofessional behavior, but instances where journalists share true and accurate information according to their judgment.

The unfortunate result is a generation of journalists losing their desire to speak the truth — although it’s their livelihood — for fear it might cost them.

Juwan Holmes is a writer and multipotentialite from Brooklyn, New York. He is the Associate Editor of LGBTQ Nation and INTOmore.com. He is also the Editorial Revolutionary-in-Charge of The Renaissance Project and creator of the #FightToWrite Initiative.

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Curtis Yee.

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