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'Washington Post' Reporter Sues Paper Over Gender Discrimination


* A reporter for The Washington Post is suing that newspaper and several of its leaders, including the legendary recently retired executive editor Marty Baron. National reporter Felicia Sonmez alleges that editors there shut her down from speaking about being sexually assaulted and also prevented her from covering #MeToo stories. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us. David, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: What does Felicia Sonmez allege?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, before joining The Washington Post, Sonmez was a reporter in China, and she publicly accused another journalist there of sexual assault, a reporter who worked for the Los Angeles Times. He denied assaulting her. The LA Times investigated. He lost his job.

Meanwhile, as she arrived at the Post, Post editors, by her allegations, discouraged her repeatedly from making public comments to the press about what had happened, discouraged her from making social media comments as well. It's worth thinking about the timing. It was 2018. It was just after the first wave of #MeToo. So it was in that context. But also, other stories were coming forward. Then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, and Christine Blasey Ford alleged he had sexually assaulted her.

Sonmez - in her suit, she says it threw her for a loop. She took a walk around the block. She was asked about it subsequently by an editor and acknowledged that she had to take a moment to gather herself before reporting it. Suddenly, she alleges, that was used against her. She was blocked from covering Kavanaugh, blocked from covering other stories involving #MeToo, sexual harassment or, even more serious, sexual assault allegations. And she argues that cost her stories. It cost her professional opportunities. It cost her good evaluations for a job, TV gigs and also, in a significant way, she alleges, her psychological well-being.

SIMON: And because he is so well known, we have to ask specifically about the charges against Marty Baron.

FOLKENFLIK: Look; Marty Baron - so much to admire for his stewardship at the Boston Globe and The Washington Post, but this is part of that story. Marty Baron - she alleges that after the Laker great Kobe Bryant was killed with his daughter in a helicopter crash, she tweeted a link out to a story where there was very serious earlier accusations about him about sexual assault of a younger woman. And Baron sent an email to the effect of, stop it; you're hurting the paper.

She alleges then, as a result of that tweet, which she then pulled offline, she received threats to her life online. She was doxxed, which is to say private information was put online that could make it easier to hurt her. And she argues that the Post failed to give her security and protection after she had been threatened.

She makes clear that Baron sort of set this tone of the idea of impartiality for his editors was important, the idea that you don't have any stake in the stories you're covering, you don't have any bias, you don't have any involvement in them and that editors told her they had to protect the story. But she alleges, hey, there was a male colleague that was accused of misconduct. He didn't have to stop reporting on #MeToo issues. There was another colleague who was an Iraqi war veteran. He didn't have to stop reporting on the military. In fact, in his case, it was seen as an asset. So in her case, she says, why are my life experiences that I didn't instigate - why do those preclude me from doing this kind of coverage?

SIMON: Any response from the Post or Marty Baron?

FOLKENFLIK: Both the Post and Marty Baron have said that they decline comment.

SIMON: What can you gauge about the reaction inside the Post newsroom?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I can tell you that the newsroom has been largely supportive of her in a number of ways over the last couple years over issues like the ban on her posting on social media, questions about whether she was restricted from covering things of sexual assault, sexual harassment. You've seen that through the Guild, the union there, and also a petition from colleagues.

And there was another episode in which an Asian American colleague who was attacked viciously on Twitter over a coverage issue - who received strong support from news leaders, including some of the defendants. There was a big newsroom meeting about that incident. And Sonmez raised the question, why didn't she receive the same support? And colleagues asked about that disparity.

SIMON: However this case might ultimately be resolved, does it say anything about the culture at The Washington Post?

FOLKENFLIK: To absorb what's presented in allegations in this suit, it emerges as very old-school - old-school about social media, the idea that reporters have to hold back to a great degree of not only their personal opinions, but their personal experiences as a prism through which they look at events unfolding in the public way. The idea that objectivity in journalism, the pursuit of a story requires not to have life experience or skin in the game to be able to write about something fairly - that's old-school, too. But in a sense, she's arguing the Post is not only old-school, but functioning as an old boys club, even though two female editors in this lawsuit are among the defendants.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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