On Being a Woman in Media
Felicia Sonmez, the Washington Post, and the slow march of progress.
A few years back, I was a staff writer for a website with around 50 employees where all eight members of the leadership team were men. The managing editor often went out of his way to make the women on staff who worked for him (like me) feel stupid or disrespected, and routinely made comments in meetings and on Slack that made us uncomfortable. So, after some validation from other staff members, I decided to let the site’s founder know what was going on. That was my first mistake.
I scheduled a formal meeting with the founder when he was in town, and three of my coworkers joined in solidarity because they were also concerned about our managing editor’s behavior. Naively, I was listening to the part of my brain that told me my sober and respectfully mapped out points would be acknowledged by the Big Boss, and that he would do something—anything!—to make things better. That was my second mistake. Instead, the meeting went something like this: I ran point on the presentation, with my others jumping in at previously designated points. When we finished, the boss sat quietly for a moment at the other side of a large table in a WeWork conference room. He then stood up, slammed both of his hands down on the table and yelled, “WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO? RUIN HIS LIFE?”
Stunned, I did my best to keep stringing sentences together, but the hand slam pretty much rendered the meeting unsalvageable. We all left feeling utterly defeated, and with no one else left to appeal to, were forced to accept the fact that there would be no repercussions for the man causing so much misery amongst staff—because another man was offended by the very idea of holding him accountable.
This week, this horrifying idea of actually holding men accountable for their actions was front and center after Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel was suspended for one month without pay for retweeting an offensive and sexist joke. Fellow Post reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted about the retweet before his suspension, leading many [mostly men] to blame her for Weigel’s punishment. Still, Sonmez bravely forged forward, exposing what she saw as clear uneven enforcement of social media policies at the Post, all while being publicly admonished by other journalists and colleagues for having the audacity to lift the curtain on one of the country’s oldest and largest newspapers. For this, she was summarily fired on Thursday.
But this wasn’t Sonmez’s first misogyny rodeo: When she was first hired in 2018, she was barred from writing about sexual assault because she’d disclosed that she was a survivor. (She sued, but the lawsuit was later dismissed.) And when, shortly after Kobe Bryant’s death in 2020, Sonmez tweeted a link to a story about Bryant’s alleged 2003 sexual assault of a Colorado hotel worker, Executive Editor Marty Baron wrote to her: “Felicia, A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” She was then suspended.
And therein lies the problem: The men who, by and large, still run most media organizations care more about the potential harm to their publication than the hurt experienced by their female employees. After years of sexual violence and reproductive health and abortion and toxic relationships being designated as “women’s issues,” the male powers-that-be are uncomfortable when these issues play out with the women who work at their actual company. Misogyny and the historically poor treatment of women are something experienced by people interviewed by their reporters, but certainly not by the reporters themselves. And certainly not at the hands of people at their very own company.
People are angry because Sonmez didn’t do what’s expected of so many women in the workplace: To accept conditions as they are, and smile through the pain, no matter the mental toll. Instead, she decided to share her trauma and open herself up to harassment from internet trolls and colleagues alike who fumed at the audacity of this woman doing, in essence, her assigned job of reporting what she sees.
And this is nothing new: Long before #metoo became a rallying cry, women journalists were covering the harrowing stories of rape and sexual assault, many at the hands of wealthy and powerful men. But even to media men like Adam Davidson, a staff writer at The New Yorker, our stories were not enough: In fact, he proudly and openly admited via a multi-part Twitter thread last week that it wasn’t until he did his own research for a podcast about Jeffrey Epstein that he truly understood Epstein, “is not some outlier, some freak who is now dead and best forgotten. He represents something essential in all of our systems of authority--law, courts, higher education, nonprofits, media, etc--that is there right now, today!”
To which many women replied: Fucking duh.
Adding insult to Sonmez’s injury, her termination letter was leaked to the New York Times, and it said that she was fired “for misconduct that includes insubordination, maligning your co-workers online and violating The Post’s standards on workplace collegiality and inclusivity.” There’s no need to belabor the irony of being fired for violating standards of collegiality by publicly talking about your workplace’s lack of collegiality, but it’s enough to give you whiplash. And the fact that this all began because a male colleague retweeted something sexist is almost too nauseating to acknowledge.
Sonmez has yet to make a public statement about her firing, but misogynists online are celebrating her bad fortune as if they won something: and in some ways, they did. Instead of rewarding women who speak out, instead of taking seriously her concerns, instead of doing the work to eradicate the clearly systemic problems, the Washington Post decided to slam down their hands.
With the impending overturn of Roe vs. Wade creating an environment of fear, women in media have been told by several publications that they ought to be careful about publicly sharing their opinions on abortion. The default in the industry has always been male, and even with promises of greater equity, our wants, needs, and experiences take a backseat to maintaining the status quo.
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