The Washington Post’s Twitter Fragility

Washington Post Pulitzer
Steven Ginsberg, Fred Ryan and Sally Buzbee of The Washington Post. Photo: Jabin Botsford/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 8, 2022

Last Spring, Jeff Bezos opened the doors of his imperial Kalorama mansion to host the final round of interviews to determine the next executive editor of The Washington Post. The paper, which Bezos had acquired in 2013, was then at an inflection point. Marty Baron, the fearless and famously irascible old-school editor, whose profile had been magnified by Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of his younger self in Spotlight, had revived the Post’s reputation for great journalism to heights unseen in a generation. He’d also steered the institution through some of the most tumultuous years in its history: Trump, the Khashoggi murder, Covid-19. Now, Baron was retiring with no obvious successor or heir apparent, inside or outside the building. 

Meanwhile, like many newsrooms, the Post was also dealing with a particularly novel digital age phenomenon—the trend of increasingly fractious, and sometimes influential, reporters airing their grievances on social media, which could occasionally complexify the overlap between the Post’s institutional brand and their own personal reputations and voice. It was a trend that visibly troubled Baron, as well as Fred Ryan, the organization’s publisher and C.E.O. The new executive editor would have to face the dual challenges of keeping the paper competitive with the Times and CNN while also managing the frustrations of its most outspoken staff, many of whom had loyal and ardent individual followings, particularly on Twitter.

During the interviews, Bezos listened intently while Ryan grilled the finalists—the AP’s Sally Buzbee, CNN’s Meredith Artley, and Post editors Steven Ginsberg and Cameron Barr—to ascertain how they might lead the paper, maintain its storied reputation, and continue to grow its business, sources with knowledge of the interviews told me. One of Ryan’s primary lines of inquiry focused on how each candidate intended to manage the staff’s use of social media and prevent employees from using Twitter in ways that could damage the company’s credibility. Ryan described such behavior as undermining the newsroom in a manner that not only hurt the brand but also diminished morale. “He wanted to know: how do we rein this in?” one person familiar with the interviews told me. He also asked candidates to explain whether they would have published Tom Cotton’s infamous New York Times op-ed advocating for a military response in the wake of the George Floyd protests—and how they would have handled the public pushback from their own employees.

Bezos said little during these interviews, I am told, but both he and his partner, Lauren Sanchez, were more forthcoming about their views of social media during a series of intimate dinners that followed each of the conversations, and which were also attended by Ryan’s wife, Genevieve, and the spouse of each respective candidate. (The existence of these dinners was first reported last year by The Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon.) 

On at least one occasion, over pre-dinner cocktails and Wagyu beef prepared three ways, Bezos and Sanchez expressed their personal frustrations with Twitter and social media, particularly as it related to the tabloid-like coverage of their relationship. The overwhelming sentiment during both the interviews and the dinners, sources said, was that the Post’s publisher and owner questioned social media’s impact on the news industry. (An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. A Washington Post spokesperson declined to make Ryan available for an interview.)

Buzbee, who was said to have been Ryan’s preference all along, ultimately won the sweepstakes and was appointed executive editor last June. Now, exactly one year into her tenure, a series of internecine tweets and retweets from some of the Post’s most recognizable employees are testing both her and Ryan’s ability to manage the newsroom. The Twitter affair—in fact, it’s really three separate Twitter micro-dramas, each compounding the significance of the other two—seems trivial on some level, but it also illuminates Ryan’s anxiety while demonstrating the agonies of managing institutions through periods of social and economic change. The Post, after all, is both a fixture of the Washington and national firmament, and yet it is composed of individuals with their own direct connection to hundreds of thousands of people on open platforms. And many of these social media-savvy employees increasingly feel that it is their right to use the platforms as a means for personal brand-building and to influence their employer—even if that advocacy is apparently directed against their own colleagues. 

The Weigel Retweet

This drama began last week after Post reporter Dave Weigel, who has a history of controversial tweets and retweets over his nearly two decades in journalism, retweeted a vulgar joke stating that all women were either bipolar or bisexual. The retweet, which Weigel removed minutes later, was obviously stupid and misguided, and it resulted in a swiftly-rendered month-long suspension without pay. 

The move initially struck many journalists as heavy handed, but as I’ve learned from several sources familiar with the matter, the severity of Weigel’s suspension was actually attributable to a number of factors, including at least three previous instances in which his tweets had been flagged to H.R. for violating the Post’s social media policy. Indeed, these sources told me that, in light of his history, Weigel could have had reason to expect he might be fired for this latest transgression. In the end, he may have even been relieved that his punishment was merely a suspension. (Weigel declined to comment.)

But internal frustration with Weigel’s retweet was immediately overshadowed by the response from his colleague Felicia Sonmez, a Post national politics reporter who has garnered admiration for her work as an international correspondent in China, both at Agence France-Press and the Journal, and her coverage of the roiling American political scene at the Post. But she came to national attention a few years ago for largely personal reasons. In early 2020, hours after Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, perished in a tragic helicopter accident, along with six others, Sonmez tweeted out an old Daily Beast story that resurfaced a sexual assault allegation made against Bryant decades earlier. (Bryant contended the encounter was consensual. Criminal charges against Bryant were dropped. He later settled a civil suit.) 

Sonmez defended her tweet, noting that public figures needed to be remembered “in their totality.” But the situation quickly turned into a scandal of its own, exacerbated by the raw emotions surrounding the tragedy. The Post suspended Sonmez, and Baron sent a memo to the newsroom disapproving of the tweet—pointing out how, as if quoting Ryan during those interviews a year later, social media could become both a distraction for the newsroom and a misrepresentation of the “tenor,” as he put it, of overall coverage. Meanwhile, Sonmez faced the unmitigated hell that the Internet can unleash—including, she noted at the time, threats against her life. 

Despite amassing a portfolio of excellent journalism in a heavily partisan era, Sonmez would again attract attention for another complex journalism-adjacent matter that had transpired years earlier. In 2018, Sonmez alleged in a statement that she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times journalist, prompting the Post, responding to what it claimed was her public advocacy, to ban her from covering stories pertaining to the topic, such as the #MeToo movement, that might present the appearance of bias. (The accused journalist claimed that their interaction was consensual.) The Post lifted the ban, which was highly controversial, in March 2021. The following July, Sonmez sued the paper and its leadership for discrimination. In a statement that accompanied her suit, Sonmez explained that the editorial decision to prevent her from covering stories around sexual assault “retraumatized and humiliated me by forcing me to relive my assault at work, over and over, whenever news broke and a colleague would ask why I wasn’t allowed to cover a story.” The statement continued: “Their actions do a disservice to Washington Post readers and send a chilling message to all female journalists: Stay silent about your assault, or your career is on the line.”

The Post, meanwhile, contended that her advocacy on the issue violated its policy on the perception of conflicts of interests. Earlier this year, a judge ultimately decided in favor of the Post and dismissed her case. Sonmez’s lawyer Sundeep Hora said they would appeal the decision, but as I learned this week, Hora has actually withdrawn himself from the case. (Hora did not respond to a request for comment regarding his decision to withdraw.)

Last Friday, after Weigel’s tasteless retweet, Sonmez blasted him on Twitter, sarcastically observing that it was “fantastic to work at a news outlet where retweets like this are allowed.” Since then, she has published more than 100 tweets or retweets related to Weigel’s tweet. Many of them also relate to the fallout from her decision to call him out on Twitter, including dozens of tweets that have criticized Post management or various colleagues by name for taking issue with her behavior or defending the paper.

At one point, Post reporter Jose A. Del Real took to Twitter to encourage Sonmez to stop her “repeated and targeted public harassment” of Weigel, describing it as “clout chasing” and “bullying.” She responded with a tweet asking why the Post hadn’t taken action on Del Real’s tweets, too, ultimately leading Del Real to block her on Twitter. Another Post reporter, Nina Zafar, accused Del Real of “fragile feelings” and a “lack of empathy.” 

Sonmez, who has used Twitter to speak out against the Post and some of her colleagues in the past, inspires impassioned feelings. Many colleagues champion her efforts to publicly hold the paper accountable for its actions, and believe she has been unfairly discriminated against. There is a view that her tweets are not an attack, but rather an attempt to illuminate examples of misogyny. Others view her behavior as reckless, incendiary and damaging. More than 15 current and former Post employees who I spoke to in the course of my reporting for this article, both men and women, described her as an internal threat to the paper’s reputation—not necessarily because she takes issue with the paper or its leadership, but because she often raises her concerns on Twitter instead of dealing directly with her colleagues or human resources. 

To be clear, everyone that I spoke with believed that Weigel had been foolish. And while sources didn’t question Sonmez’s passion for standing up to what she saw as misogyny, they were genuinely upset that she seemed hellbent on upending the Post to make her point. One thing I’ve learned about the Post over the years is that its reporters really do like the place, despite its imperfections, and many people I spoke to explained how Sonmez’s tweets were a lot less productive than a hard, private conversation with management. Reporters including Dan Balz, Carol Leonnig, Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker, Rosalind Helderman, Michael Scherer, and Amy Gardner, among others, have all issued tweets to that effect. (Sonmez declined to comment for this piece, though many of her tweets suggest she believes that management is unresponsive to her concerns.)

Finally, on Tuesday, Buzbee sent out a staff-wide memo reiterating that the Post does not tolerate “colleagues attacking colleagues either face to face or online.” But as Josh Barro, the influential journalist, noted in a recent column that has been widely read throughout the Post, management has been tolerating this sort of behavior for years, “which is why we got to this point,” as he put it. By the letter of the Post’s social media guidelines, he argued, Sonmez has violated company policy on myriad occasions. Del Real and Zafar have as well. Coincidentally, before the Weigel-Sonmez affair, Taylor Lorenz, another Post journalist who is very active on Twitter, was involved in her own Twitter controversy after an article incorrectly stated that she had reached out to two YouTube influencers for comment. She had not. Lorenz, working in concert with Post P.R., attributed the error to her editor on—where else?—Twitter.

All Eyes on Buzbee

Buzbee’s failure to curb this behavior can be attributed to a number of factors, including the legal and public relations concerns inherent in taking punitive action against Sonmez, an employee who has sued the company for discrimination and, despite losing, stated her intention to appeal. But many current and former Post employees say the failure can also be attributed to a skittishness on the part of the paper’s leadership. They’ve seen the backlash that followed Baron’s handling of the Kobe Bryant matter, and the decision to temporarily ban Sonmez from reporting on stories related to sexual assault, and they don’t want to subject themselves to similar blowback. (Post spokesperson Kris Coratti declined to comment for this article.)

Buzbee, who was also not made available for an interview, is said to be hard at work figuring out how to update and more effectively enforce the Post’s social media policies. But the increasingly popular consensus among Post staffers and industry insiders who chafe at the recent infighting on Twitter say it may be time to rip off the band-aid and institute a zero-tolerance policy. Two years ago, Baron sent a memo to staff declaring that the Post “is more than a collection of individuals who wish to express themselves,” and that its reputation “must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression.” Dean Baquet, the outgoing executive editor of The New York Times, recently warned his newsroom to wean off of Twitter. CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht also recently noted that he wouldn’t be using the platform. His stance was viewed skeptically as a slightly performative gesture, but it also sent a remarkably clear message to his organization: cut this shit out and get back to work.

“If I ran the Post, I would hand out punishments, including suspensions, like candy, until all this nonsense stopped,” Barro wrote in his column. Barro doesn’t run the Post, of course, but there’s a reason his column has been so well-received in many corners of the newsroom, and among news executives at rival companies who are closely following this drama. Barro argues that such a crackdown would “not be anti-worker. It would be pro-worker, because it is miserable to be employed by the sort of organization where it’s hard to focus on your work because you have to worry about who is going to attack you in public.” Indeed, as one Post employee told me, “There are more than a thousand people who go to work at the Post every day, put their head down and do the work. The tragedy here is that one person’s tweets can undermine all of that.” (Update: Sonmez was fired by the Post less than a day after this article was published.)

In the end, of course, the Post remains a pillar of democracy that can withstand far more than an ugly Twitter drama in which everyone comes out tarnished. But this whole matter suggests a larger evolution in our late-stage-Covid media culture, and within the power dynamic between management and an increasingly outspoken workforce. After years of transforming itself into a younger, faster, its-okay-to-make-mistakes culture, the Post, like many large-ish companies, is trying to rebalance the equation and, well, once again institutionalize. And given that they are owned by the world’s second-richest person, and that we are headed into a recession, Buzbee and Ryan will probably get their way.

This article has been updated.