By OLIVIA RIGGIO
In the hours following the helicopter crash that left basketball star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others dead, social media sites were inundated with mourning fans, commemorating an idol and cultural icon. But as celebrities, fans and players remembered the inspiring and dedicated Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard, thought to be one of the best players in NBA history, one less-uplifting detail of his career went largely unmentioned: the 2003 rape case.
One exception: Washington Post political reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article (4/11/16) published before Bryant’s retirement. “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession” took an in-depth look at the 2003 case, in which a 19-year-old hotel employee accused Bryant of rape.
She subsequently dropped her criminal suit and settled her civil case against him, after she was “dragged through the mud by the media and Bryant’s defense team,” as the article reports; he issued an apology, which said in part, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual…I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
After sharing this article, Sonmez was attacked with death and rape threats, and fans demanding her firing. She was forced to move from her home to a hotel after someone shared her address online. Sonmez received a call from her managing editor, Tracy Grant, telling her the Post had suspended her, effective immediately. In an interview with the Post’s media critic, Eric Wemple (1/27/20), Sonmez said Grant told her the tweet was in poor taste, and that she was not in a position to share stories not related to her beat.
Sonmez said Grant told her, “Your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.” In an email obtained by the New York Times (1/27/20), Post executive editor Marty Baron told Sonmez, “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”
She later deleted her initial tweet, and another that included screenshots of hate messages she received.
This incident was not the first time Baron has come down on his reporters for controversial tweets. The Daily Beast (2/3/20) reported that while most of Baron’s grievances with journalists’ Twitter presence don’t spill into the public, they occur often. One example involved Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Wesley Lowery, who tweeted last year critiquing the Times retrospective on the Tea Party movement. He questioned why the Times did not acknowledge how the early 2010s movement was a “hysterical” response to “the fact that a black guy was president.”
The Beast, citing two Post insiders, said Baron and Grant accused Lowery of violating their social media policy by being too political, and threatened to fire him. “What’s the point of bringing diverse experiences and voices into a room only to muzzle them?” Lowery, who recently left the Post for CBS, was quoted by the Beast. The Times later amended its piece to reflect the reality that racial tensions contributed to the Tea Party’s rise.
The Washington Post Newspaper Guild wrote a letter to Grant and Baron that garnered the signatures of hundreds of Post employees, demanding the paper reinstate Sonmez and take steps to ensure her safety. “Felicia had to leave her home out of fear for her safety and has gotten insufficient guidance from the Post on how to protect herself,” the Guild said.
The Post reinstated Sonmez January 28, with Grant releasing a statement that condemned Sonmez’s tweets as “ill-timed” but “not in violation of our social media policy.” The statement did not include an apology to Sonmez—a detail the Guild called out in a January 28 statement.
Sonmez also released a statement calling on Baron to comment directly on the matter, which he later did in a three-page memo to his staff, which, again, did not include an apology (CNN, 1/30/20). Sonmez wrote:
Washington Post journalists endeavor to live up to the paper’s mission statement, which states, “The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.”
In his statement, Baron insisted that “the reputation of the Post must prevail over any one individual’s desire for expression.”
The rape allegations against Bryant are indeed an inconvenient truth for those who grew up shouting “Kobe!” when throwing balled up paper into the garbage can from their elementary-school desks. Bryant was a dedicated father of four daughters, a backer of the WNBA, an outspoken advocate against racism in sports and an athlete who inspired countless young people to work hard for success. There was also credible evidence suggesting he was guilty of rape.
Bryant admitted to having sex (only after investigators informed him of the physical evidence on his accuser’s body) but insisted the encounter was consensual. The victim’s allegations of choking and other physical force were backed by physical evidence of trauma on her body—despite the media repeating that the evidence was “minimal” and unlikely to stand in trial.
Sonmez is a survivor herself. She faced criticism after she publicly accused reporter Jon Kaiman of assaulting her. In the libertarian magazine Reason (10/19), writer Emily Yoffe attacked Sonmez and others, lamenting that the #MeToo movement went too far against Kaiman, who was forced to resign from the Los Angeles Times and move back in with his parents at age 32.
Sonmez said in an interview with the Post (1/28/20) that she believed most news organizations ignored or minimized the reality of the Bryant case, and that she wanted to remind people of it. She said other survivors applauded her.
But even outlets with more careful reporting failed to balance the reality of Bryant’s rape case with the successes of his career and tragedy of his death.
As Sonmez expressed, the trial was a postscript in most reporting memorializing Bryant. But in reality, its consequences cast a shadow over Bryant at the peak of his career.
In what the media are calling the “era” of #MeToo (as if women’s anger is a newfangled liberal millennial trend), it’s becoming more widely known—and protested—that the justice system often turns “innocent until proven guilty” to “innocent even after proven guilty” when it comes to sexual assault.
But in the case of Bryant, fans, celebrities and the media seemed to step back from the principles of #MeToo and decided to ignore the evidence of Bryant’s guilt.
In one article, the Washington Post (1/26/20) relegated one paragraph to the rape case, hastily moving on to say the criminal and civil cases were, respectively, dropped and settled, and adding that “Bryant’s adulation remained strong in Los Angeles even during the sexual assault allegations.” Another Post piece (1/26/20) was quick to mention the dropping and settling of the cases, following three sentences about the alleged assault with a paragraph about how Bryant wrote children’s books and won an Academy Award for his animated short film.
In an NBC piece (1/26/20), a mention of the case—again without details on the accusations, the evidence, or the circumstances leading the accuser to drop charges—was sandwiched between details Bryant’s MVP status and legacy as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
This brief mention to check the “objectivity” box was a common thread throughout most initial reports—possibly because the case was never fairly reported on in the first place.
In 2003–04, when the case was erupting, the media largely served as a megaphone for Bryant’s defense team. They echoed assertions that Bryant’s accuser had a history of mental health issues and that she had consensual sex with “multiple” men in the three days prior to the assault (which somehow explained her injuries, including evidence of force and trauma around her vagina). In CBS’s “Kobe Loses McDonald’s Deal” (1/23/04), the outlet mourned the loss of his “once-wholesome image,” outlining the defense’s arguments and not mentioning the prosecution’s evidence.
In a 2003 Good Morning America clip (10/21/03), reporters speculated on whether there really was enough probable cause to bring forward the trial. The reporters discussed the “weakness” of the evidence the judge said was open to “multiple interpretations.” ABC legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden commented on the positive optics of Bryant’s wife Vanessa’s support:
Having covered hundreds of these proceedings, I don’t know what an innocent or a guilty person looks like as they sit before the court, but I do know that it matters that their family be present.
The New York Times (7/18/03) also touted Bryant’s athletic successes, his remorse for committing “adultery” and Vanessa’s support. “She appeared with Mr. Bryant at the news conference tonight, holding hands with her husband,” the piece says:
Mr. Bryant took several minutes to compose himself before speaking, and his voice broke as he said he was disgusted and furious with his behavior that led to the charge.
Some writers were able to accurately depict the entire truth of Bryant’s legacy while still honoring the tragedy of his and his daughter’s death and the positive impact Bryant had on sports.
He made more history. But that hotel room in Colorado would always be a part of his history, his story, and all of his luminous accomplishments, even after basketball—he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018—could not change that. He was as fiercely determined to write a worthy second act to his public life. And did.
Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan (1/26/20) credited Lupica’s and other articles that handled Bryant’s legacy accurately, but with grace.
Lawyer, author and blogger Jill Filipovic (1/26/20) acknowledged the gravity of Bryant and his daughter’s sudden death, but also called out why many fans struggle with the inconvenient parts of Bryant’s legacy and the aversion of speaking ill of the idolized dead. Of the assault case, she says:
This is all key to Kobe’s story. And also, it is not the whole story. Out of some mislaid definition of “respect,” we are so excellent at sidelining the inconvenient parts, at least when the inconvenient parts are women we’ve made invisible and the one inconvenienced is a man we would prefer to keep admiring, without complication.
The helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others was horrific. The love of his family, friends and fans is palpable — Bryant’s career positively affected many people. But if journalists’ job is to tell the entire truth, many fell short. Journalistic reports need not be rosy eulogies. Truthful but controversial tweets should not cost a reporter her job, or her standing. The Washington Post’s failure to support Felicia Sonmez through the slew of attacks that followed her inconvenient truth-telling shows why many who are sexually assaulted are still afraid to come forward.
Source: FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting)