Kobe Bryant, Felicia Sonmez, and the Case of the Poorly Timed Tweet

So, it’s been less than a week since Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the world is mourning his death. There have been tributes all over the world, and endless news cycles reporting every detail of his career highlights and business legacy as well as his sudden death.

There’s one news story that’s gotten a lot of media play – most of it bad: Washington Post political reporter Felicia Sonmez and the now deleted tweet featuring a 2016 link about Bryant’s rape case. The case, likely one of the biggest blights on Bryant’s career, originated from an incident at a hotel in 2003.

According to one article, “shortly afterward, she tweeted that she had received “abuse and death threats” from “10,000 people, literally.” …Her tweets were later deleted.”

That was just the beginning. The Post placed Sonmez on administrative leave while they investigated whether or not she violated social media policy. She was taken off suspension a few days later when they determined that she had not.

When I read the story, I immediately sided with the Post for suspending her because I agree with Executive Editor Martin Baron who reportedly “emailed Sonmez shortly after her tweets and said, in part, “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

However, having read and heard multiple opinions and learned some more context around the Post’s behavior regarding rape content on previous occasions, I am no longer sure the Post was right to suspend her at all. Freedom of the press is a real thing, and it should be preserved. But Sonmez doesn’t get a pass. Not even when I learned of her history with sexual assault.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that as a reporter she was wrong to tweet about something she has an emotional connection to. I’m also not crying over Kobe Bryant’s death. My basketball acumen doesn’t warrant more than a passing mention, even if his was stellar. Any third party admiration I have for him is for his legacy, the fact that he was able to sustain his success so well post retirement. But as a journalist I do object to the timing and to the lack of context in Sonmez’s tweet. Baldly, it was tacky af. Timing is everything.

My first reaction was, really? The man and his 13-year-old daughter were just announced dead, and you’re already throwing shade? It’s not about respect for the dead either. It’s about respect for his wife and three remaining daughters, his family, his in-laws and even his business partners who are still living. In the midst of global mourning, without context Sonmez tweet could only be taken badly.

Logically, I know I should feel differently, but emotionally I still can’t drum up much sympathy for all the online hate – and I loathe that anonymous vitriol nonsense with a passion – she’s getting. Why? As a reporter for one of the most well-known media outlets in the nation, maybe even the world, she should know better.

The power of social media is real. However shallow it might be at times, only the misguided don’t have a healthy respect for it. Further, while everyone makes mistakes – that’s why we have the ability to delete things – a reporter should have a deep understanding of how easy it is for us to go wrong when using it.

Further, I believe journalists have a responsibility to present complete narratives. Or, at least present contextual ones. Sonmez knew that tweeting out a 2016 Daily Beast article with the headline “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession” right after the news of his death broke could be incendiary, and it was. Whether or not “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality, even if that public figure beloved and that totality upsetting,” as she wrote, again, timing is everything.

I’ve always had deep, deep sympathy for the women – and men – who are left behind to suffer for their famous husbands or partners behavior in the media. But I also hold a special antipathy for people who continually throw up others past mistakes. As someone who has made her share of tragically stupid errors in judgment, recovered, repented and never made them again, people should be allowed to move on.

You might say, but Kellye, rape?

Listen, trust me. I know it sounds completely screwy for me, someone who holds men to an extremely tough standard when it comes to their behavior with women – all of my friends are nodding their heads empathically – to even obliquely suggest that we should forget about this famous man’s alleged wrong doing. Further, I would never, ever want to silence someone speaking out about sexual misconduct or sexual violence. Rape, rape culture, the trauma victims often suffer when trying to get their attackers punished, none of these are helped by silence. Just the opposite.

I’m not saying anyone should forgive him. I’m saying it’s not our place to judge or forgive, and there is a time and place for everything.

I don’t even object to anyone criticizing the Post for how it handled the situation. The resulting discussions on double standards and poorly constructed and enforced newsroom policies, how male legacies are revered, and female pain is so easily dismissed, the failings of modern day journalism, even how we respond to the online mob culture that develops so easily through social media, these are all welcome.

Why? Because as we’re unpacking things, there is context. We’re offering more than just a link and a headline.

I object to the timing of the tweet. I object to its lack of context. There was no link to commentary. Sonmez wasn’t trying to offer a perspective. She just cast out this thing. And there it was, floating out in the murky sea of the internet, free to catch any bit of trash that happened to go by.

We’re not even sure who broke the news of his death to Bryant’s family first, friends and family, or the media. Then, to quickly throw that gas soaked match onto the fire? End of the day, it was poorly done.

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