F-bombs and death threats: Kobe Bryant, Mike Pompeo and the abuse of women journalists

By Alia E. Dastagir | Originally Published: USA Today

In the past 72 hours, two women reporters at separate national news outlets were attacked with violent and sexist language for sending tweets and reporting on an interview. For female journalists, this kind of abuse is often part of the job.

The Washington Post confirmed Monday it had suspended reporter Felicia Sonmez after she tweeted out a three-year-old news story on accusations of rape against Kobe Bryant, one of basketball’s greatest players, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Sonmez also tweeted about the deluge of abusive messages and death threats she received for sharing the link, including one with a screenshot of an email that displayed the sender’s name.

On Friday, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo castigated her after a tense nine-minute interview, shouting, cursing and challenging her to find Ukraine on a map. Comments on news stories about the incident range from: “What a nasty little smirk on that useless woman,” to calling Kelly “disgusting.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a press conference at the State Department in Washington on Dec. 11, 2019.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a press conference at the State Department in Washington on Dec. 11, 2019. Saul Loeb, AFP Via Getty Images

Pompeo said Kelly agreed to an off-the-record, post-interview conversation, but Kelly said that was untrue. Pompeo does not deny his tirade. 

While newsroom responses to these two incidents were different — the Post suspended Sonmez, but NPR has stood by Kelly —  they have much in common.

Most journalists experience derision or threats on occasion, but data show women are far more likely to be targeted, and those attacks are often sexist in nature.

Roughly half of the women journalists from 50 countries, including the United States, surveyed by the International Federation of Journalists said they experience physical and verbal abuse, according to a 2019 report from the Women’s Media Center.

Online attacks, especially, have become increasingly common. Women journalists experience physical, sexual and online abuse daily, according to research from the International Women’s Media Foundation, and they say that abuse has negatively impacted their mental health. Approximately 40% said they avoid reporting certain stories because of it.

The attacks go beyond journalism. Girls and women on the internet are degraded, bullied, stalked and threatened, often with little support for their mental health and few consequences for their harassers. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted online as a result of their gender.

Experts say the capacity of online attacks to erode the institution of journalism is especially concerning.

“It’s really hard to convey to people the scope of this kind of harassment, the viciousness of it, and the onslaught that many, many women journalists experience every day,” said Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation. “What surprises me … is when I still talk to people who are in the industry, even if only tangentially, who aren’t aware that this is actually a day-to-day experience.”

Research shows women of color, who are vastly underrepresented in newsrooms, are harassed disproportionately. In 2018, reporter April Ryan received death threats for asking then press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether President Donald Trump was resigning.

After Bryant’s death Sunday, Twitter was divided on Sonmez’s original tweet. Some say her timing was insensitive. Others argue there is nothing wrong with a reporter sharing a news story that offers context around a public figure’s life.

The Post did not indicate which of Sonmez’s tweets prompted the suspension, and a spokesperson declined USA TODAY’s request for elaboration. As of early Monday evening, more than 200 Washington Post journalists signed a union statement calling on the newspaper to reinstate and support Sonmez.

On Tuesday evening, the Post released an updated statement from managing editor Tracy Grant. “While we consider Felicia’s tweets ill-timed, she was not in clear and direct violation of our social media policy,” Grant said. “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”

In her column this week, USA TODAY’s Nancy Armour noted that Bryant was a “transcendent player” who “inspired hundreds of thousands of kids to reach beyond themselves.” But she also said the rape accusation made against him should not be ignored when considering his legacy.

Electronic signs honor Kobe Bryant at L.A. Live in Los Angeles on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, following reports of his death in a helicopter crash in southern California. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

Electronic signs honor Kobe Bryant at L.A. Live in Los Angeles on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, following reports of his death in a helicopter crash in southern California. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker) The Associated Press.

Bryant was charged in 2003 with sexual assault and false imprisonment. The case was dropped after his accuser refused to testify. (For some survivors, testifying can be overwhelming, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.) Armour called Bryant’s statement afterward “a stunning admission of culpability.” He later settled a lawsuit with the accuser.

A USA TODAY Facebook post of Armour’s column Monday had nearly 1,000 comments an hour after it was shared. Most of the comments criticized USA TODAY or Armour for the column; some included personal attacks on Armour.

One commenter called her a “POS.” Another said he hoped “they shred your legacy to pieces at your funeral.” On Twitter, she was called “disgraceful” and a “wicked woman.”

Sonmez called the response to her own tweet “eye opening.”

“To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story — which was written 3 years ago and not by me,” she wrote in two since-deleted tweets. “Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling. That folks are responding with rage & threats toward me (someone who didn’t even write the piece but found it well-reported) speaks volumes about the pressure people come under to stay silent in these cases.”

In an interview with the Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, Sonmez says she reported the threats to her editors. At least one threat included her address. Fearing for her safety, Sonmez checked into a hotel on Sunday night.

Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor who studies Internet threats, wrote in a 2009 paper for the Michigan Law Review that victims of Internet harassment are routinely dismissed as “overly sensitive complainers.” This is exactly what some Twitter users suggested about Sonmez.

In Kelly’s case, Pompeo was her loudest abuser.

“He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted,” she said.

In its report on women in the media, Women’s Media Center president Julie Burton writes, “Media tells our society (and our young people) what is important and who matters.”

How the public treats the media may tell us the same.