Service of Should Transgressions Go Unmentioned After Someone Dies?

February 3rd, 2020

Categories: Uncategorized


A Washington Post reporter was immediately suspended–and later reinstated from the punishment of administrative leave–for tweeting, after his death, about Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault charge 17 years ago. Bryant had said he thought the encounter was consensual but according to New York Times** reporters Rachel Abrams and Marc Tracy, “he had come to understand that she did not see it in the same way.” She was a 19 year old Colorado hotel front desk clerk. The case was eventually dropped after an undisclosed settlement.

The reporter, Felicia Sonmez, received death threats and online abuse as tributes by politicians and celebrities praised Bryant. She linked to 2016 Daily Beast coverage of the case in her tweet.

Three hundred + fellow Post reporters protested Sonmez’s suspension. Abrams and Tracy wrote that “The Post’s social media guidelines ask journalists to be informative and factual in their online posts.”


Martin Baron, the paper’s executive editor, sent her an email last Sunday. He wrote that she showed “a real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.”

Two days later the paper stated that Sonmez “was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy.” The New York Times reporters wrote “The Post’s statement also referred to her tweets as ‘ill-timed’ and continued: ‘We consistently urge restraint which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths.'”

Sonmez wasn’t the only one who remembered the sexual assault charge. Len Berman, morning host on WOR 710 Radio’s morning show–and a former TV sports reporter–mentioned it observing that Bryant’s record wasn’t unblemished as implied by most media.


**Something curious: I looked on line for the article I read in the print New York Times story “At Post, Another Round of Dissent Over Bryant” [photo below]. The facts and quotes in this post come from it. It wasn’t on the paper’s website nor could I find it via Google. Other articles on the subject by reporters Abrams and Tracy are online but not that one.

Are there different rules for public figures when it comes to mentioning a hiccup in a person’s life after they die? For example you wouldn’t mention your Cousin Nigel’s misbehavior at his funeral or in his obituary, would you? Are rules of behavior different if a celebrity dies in a horrendous accident? Should a reporter be reprimanded for tweeting the truth about a beloved public figure? What if such a person is disliked–would a tweet like Felicia Sonmez’s have gone unnoticed?

I couldn’t find a digital version of the NY Times article at the bottom of the page.


10 Responses to “Service of Should Transgressions Go Unmentioned After Someone Dies?”

  1. Moustapha Bin As-Lip Said:

    Isn’t there a general convention that you can only mention post mortem blemishes on character when someone is universally reviled by all right thinking members of society?

    So it is OK when used as an empirical description of a Charles Manson or a Donald Trump. When someone has NO redeeming good qualities, such as Atillla the Hun or Bernie Madoff.

  2. ASK Said:

    Why are people on Twitter anyway? Tweets always seem to come back to haunt the twitterers…We as a society are much better off without it…! We all should remember: Embedded in the word “twitter” is the word “twit.”

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    It looks like you nailed it. Nobody is going to worry about the feelings of former Governor Spitzer’s children when they write about him after he dies because he made so many enemies before his downfall.

    The Me-Too movement no doubt inspired the Post reporter to bring up a sexual abuse charge. However Len Berman also mentioned it. Those in the sports world may well remember the incident which the general public doesn’t.

  4. Hank Goldman Said:

    Hard to make a blanket statement… I would say it depends on who you’re talking about. In the case of JFK, I would allow a lot of latitude because of all the good he did. Improved the world greatly.

    In the case of the current occupant of the oval office, bash him continually for every lousy trick he pulled against us, the environment, wildlife, immigrants, women, and the list goes on and on.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I may have been the only person alive during JFK’s presidency who didn’t know about his sexual exploits. I assume I wasn’t alone. At the time such behavior wasn’t discussed. Between the relaxation of much of the public regarding such activity and the advent of social media and cameras in every pocket we live in a different world.

    I don’t follow sports to know if this was the tip of the iceberg but if Bryant had only one accusation of this nature I’m not sure it was necessary to bring it up right after his death. On the other hand were I the woman he’d attacked or her family, I might think differently.

  6. Martha Takayama Said:

    I agree with Jeanne’s thoughts.I must admit that the discretion and circumspect reporting about all the personal activities, including the indiscretions of celebrities during the Kennedy years, often spared us focusing on what was not necessarily the public’s business. I also lament the voyeuristic nature of today’s news. It is quite awkward to read about the unpleasant nature of Byrant’s legal problems at the same time as reading an obituary dedicated to his largely appealing life and career and tragic demise. On the other hand the Bryant legal incident seems to have a public life of its own since it evolved into a legal and for someone at least highly painful dispute. It does not seem to have been necessary to either extol Bryant as a flawless force for morality and by extension a near mythological being in a grab for news prominence in gushing obituaries. Nor did reference to the untoward incident have to be completely covered up or suppressed. It could have been perhaps briefly mentioned in initial obituaries, the purpose of which should have been to recount his life and its impact in a more mature way. Furthermore suspension and censorship of Sommerz seems to contradict the lofty attitude of the Washington Post and smacks of Trumpism or totalitarianism more than great sensitivity and good taste.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You hit the nail on the head and the reason Len Berman brought up the sexual assault charge on his radio program was precisely for the reason you identify: The athlete, while in many ways admirable, wasn’t a saint and wasn’t always the model of perfection people were describing as they spoke and wrote about him. No question his loss and the death of his daughter and the other seven in the helicopter was tragic, but it also didn’t erase his past.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’m not an apologist for Twitter but I find it useful to read comments by commentators I admire such as Dan Rather, Nicolle Wallace, Bill Kristol, Jon Meacham etc. that often link to articles or interviews I’d not otherwise have seen.

    For me or my fictitious character Muriel Schmutz to pontificate on some subject on twitter is one thing–few will see it. For someone at an organization such as the Washington Post to tweet there will be thousands if not millions of potential eyes. The benefit to Felicia Sonmez of writing something she had to know was inflammatory is that many more have heard of her now.

  9. Hank Goldman Said:

    Right. Every case is different and I must be viewed from different points… hard to make a blanket statement.

  10. Lucrezia Said:

    Assuming free speech, reporter Sonmez may say what she wants, and should not be made to feel her job is threatened. However, such a disclosure is in terrible taste, and lack of sympathy for existing tragic circumstances. I’m not much of a basketball fan, but can only express disgust at such a commentary, along with zero respect for its author.

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