After several days of various Washington Post staffers dragging internal feuds into the public square of Twitter, Executive Editor Sally Buzbee sent a memo to Post staff admonishing them to “treat each other with respect and kindness.” And of course, because we live in the year 2022 and that sadly seems to be how things work, Buzbee’s missive spawned newly tweeted vitriolic spats.
The kerfuffle began when Post political reporter David Weigel retweeted a tweet by YouTuber Cam Harless that said, “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual.”
Weigel’s colleague Felicia Sonmez took a screenshot of Weigel’s retweet and posted it on Friday with the comment, “Fantastic to work at a news outlet where retweets like this are allowed!”
“I just removed a retweet of an offensive joke,” Weigel tweeted later that day. “I apologize and did not mean to cause any harm.”
That did not end the controversy.
Political commentators and other various members of the media continued to contribute their two cents to the debate — including others on the Post payroll. And much of it happened with the online world to witness, either from the beginning with Post reporters tweeting attacks at each other, or internal communications that were quickly leaked.
Kristine Coratti Kelly, the paper’s chief communications officer, issued a statement regarding Weigel’s retweet: “Editors have made clear to the staff that the tweet was reprehensible and demeaning language or actions like that will not be tolerated.”
CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported Kelly’s statement Friday and added that there had been an internal conversation about Weigel’s retweet on the Post’s internal Slack channel, with national editor Matea Gold weighing in.
Darcy expanded on his reporting in that evening’s Reliable Sources newsletter, describing how Sonmez had originally “confronted” Weigel over the retweet on Slack:
Sonmez, according to messages that I obtained, also confronted Weigel in an internal WaPo Slack channel, tagging him and writing, “I’m sorry but what is this?” Sonmez said in the Slack channel that the retweet sent “a confusing message about what the Post’s values are.” Others joined the discussion in the Slack channel, ultimately resulting in national editor Matea Gold writing, “I just want to assure all of you that The Post is committed to maintaining a respectful workplace for everyone. We do not tolerate demeaning language or actions.”
This particular Slack chat predated Sonmez’s tweet, which seemed to have come after she was unsatisfied with the internal company discussions of the matter.
Another Post reporter, Jose Del Real, replied to Sonmez’s tweet with two tweets of his own, acknowledging that Weigel’s retweet was “terrible and unacceptable,” but urging her to accept his apology instead of “rallying the internet to attack him for a mistake he made,” which “doesn’t actually solve anything.”
“Felicia, we all mess up from time to time,” Del Real wrote. “Engaging in repeated and targeted public harassment of a colleague is neither a good look nor is it particularly effective. It turns the language of inclusivity into clout chasing and bullying. I don’t think this is appropriate…There is such a thing as challenging with compassion.”
This only incensed Sonmez further, who then tweeted a thread directed at Del Real arguing that she had just been standing up for herself (it should perhaps be noted that Weigel’s retweet did not mention her or involve her at all), but had gotten “even more vitriol” and “publicly attacked” by Del Real in response. In another tweet in the thread, she objected to Del Real’s criticism and tagged editors Buzbee and Gold, bluntly asking them if the Post agreed with her view.
Del Real attempted to debate Sonmez, arguing that he supported her efforts to fight “sexism and misogyny,” but encouraging her to “reconsider the cruelty you regularly unleash against colleagues.”
“I reject your attempt to make a specific critique of your regular public bullying into a sweeping opera about principles,” Del Real added, reiterating that Weigel’s retweet was offensive, and had been “strongly condemned internally,” so therefore he was “confused about [her] implication otherwise.” He also mentioned that he was a “gay Mexican American” and didn’t need her to educate him “on being from a marginalized group.”
Sonmez continued torrentially tweeting throughout the day Sunday about the dispute, retweeting dozens of comments from other Twitter users supporting her.
At 11:30 am ET Sunday morning, Buzbee sent an email to the newsroom staff with the subject line “respect and kindness” attempting to address the ongoing and increasingly public infighting. New York Times media reporter Ben Mullin obtained a copy of the email and posted it — where else? — on Twitter.
Buzbee wrote in the email:
We expect the staff to treat each other with respect and kindness both in the newsroom and online. We are a collegial and creative newsroom doing an astonishing amount of important and groundbreaking journalism. One of the great strengths of our newsroom is our collaborative spirit.
The Washington Post is committed to an inclusive and respectful environment free of harassment, discrimination or bias of any sort. When issues arise, please raise them with leadership or human resources and we will address them promptly and firmly.
My best, Sally
Once again, that did not end the controversy. Sonmez complained on Twitter that Buzbee’s statement was “provid[ing] fodder for more harassment.”
Later, Del Real weighed in again, posting a six tweet thread without tagging Sonmez or directly engaging with any of her tweets. In the thread, he wrote that he had been the target of “an unrelenting series of attacks intended to tarnish my professional and personal reputation” because of “[s]ome tweets I sent calling for compassion within our workplace.”
“In hopes of de-escalating,” he continued, and after “a barrage of online abuse directed by one person but carried out by an eager mob,” he had “temporarily deactivated” his Twitter account and had decided it was best to not continue to engage this debate. “Hurt people hurt people,” he cited the old adage.
He wrapped the thread urging people to be kinder to each other and describing “empathy” as a “necessary tool in this effort to improve our workplaces and our culture.”
It should probably be mentioned that meltdown over one reporter’s retweet was taking place contemporaneously with the circus surrounding Taylor Lorenz’s latest article about YouTubers and TikTokers who posted influential commentary during the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial, including accusations the article misrepresented whether Lorenz had properly reached out for comment, a correction to the article, a correction to the correction, and then of course more tweets from Lorenz attempting to explain what happened, and then criticizing the response to the explanation, and so on and so on…
…oh, it’s just exhausting.
The tweet Weigel retweeted was in poor taste. There does seem to be a general consensus on that point; it was dumb and I won’t defend it.
But what is the appropriate penalty for such a tweeted transgression?
Weigel took down the offensive retweet, publicly apologized without attempting to blame anyone else (an approach his colleague Lorenz did not use), and does not appear to have done anything else to escalate or otherwise continue the fight. He has been censured both internally and in a very public way multiple times by some of the highest ranking Post editors, not to mention openly attacked by several of his own colleagues.
All too often, a metaphorical pillory is erected upon the Twitter platform, to unrelentingly bludgeon the Outrage Target of the Day™ with rotting projectiles, no clear purpose or goal in sight. Why ask for an apology if you won’t accept it when it is given? What correction can be made for a bad tweet besides removing the tweet? Is the goal to actually, truly address the specific offensive tweet and generally discourage online sexism and misogyny — or simply to stoke the fires by which the online rage mob can light their torches?
Weigel’s retweet was bad, but the Post’s infighting about it spiraling out of control across the Twittersphere all weekend has only made things worse. Nothing about this spectacle made anything actually better online for women or other frequent targets of harassment, and it’s a messy, embarrassing soap opera for the Post.
Del Real may have the most prudent assessment here, in a tweet calling it a “mistake” to log into the “horror show” of Twitter.
“Can everyone just be kinder to each other?” he asked. One can only hope.
UPDATE 8:05 pm ET: The turmoil continues. Sonmez tweeted Sunday evening that she had “received no apology” from Del Real, who she accused of “baselessly accusing me of engaging in ‘bullying,’ ‘harassment’ and ‘cruelty’ — just for objecting to a sexist tweet.” She also added that Del Real had emailed her “accusing me of fostering a ‘toxic workplace’” and had blocked her on Twitter.
Mediaite has not seen the contents of the email Sonmez says Del Real sent her, but the key point is there is a massive difference of opinion regarding what constitutes a reasonable response to a retweet of a sexist tweet.
Sonmez has profusely tweeted all weekend, going on two days now since Weigel apologized and took down the retweet. Her original tweet was “objecting to a sexist tweet.” Fine. The dozens of tweets she has posted since then, however, seem to be a disproportionate response and the actual behavior on which Del Real’s critique was focused.
Does Sonmez’s weekend-long Twitter rant rise to the level of “bullying, harassment, and cruelty”? Reasonable minds may disagree. What’s a fair standard? If she continues for a week, a month? Does it matter that the retweeted tweet wasn’t about her?
The growth of social media has honed our skills in stoking online rage mobs. I’m not convinced these digital pitchfork-and-torch gangs are effective at solving the societal ills they claim to abhor.
Reporting from Mediaite.