- Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post, tweeted a link to a 2016 article detailing the rape accusation against NBA superstar Kobe Bryant after news of his death broke.
- The tweet sparked backlash and debate over how to respond to the deaths of icons with controversial histories but ultimately prompted many to call for her firing.
- On Sunday night, The Post suspended Sonmez, who later received the support of more than 300 of her colleagues.
- After a review of the incident, The Post reinstated Sonmez Tuesday, saying she he did not violate company policy.
Washington Post Reporter Tweets about Kobe Rape Case
After tweeting about Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault allegation the day he and eight others died in a helicopter crash, Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was suspended.
By Tuesday evening, however, The Post reinstated Sonmez and cleared her of any violations.
The incident began Sunday when, shortly after Bryant’s death, Sonmez tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article titled, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.”
That article details a 2003 accusation that Bryant raped a then 19-year-old hotel employee at a Colorado Spa. Bryant was subsequently charged with sexual assault and could have faced up to life in prison.
The NBA legend initially told investigators that he hadn’t had a sexual encounter with the woman, but later admitted to the encounter and to cheating on his wife, Vanessa Bryant.
Bryant claimed that the affair was consensual. The case then moved to court, but it was dropped in 2004 when Bryant’s accuser refused to testify.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” Bryant said in a statement the same day the case was dropped. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
His accuser later filed a civil suit, and Bryant settled with her outside of court.
Such was the basis for Sonmez’s tweet. Sonmez, a survivor of sexual assault herself, has since said that she refrained from adding any comments to her tweet because of The Post’s policies.
Later in the day, however, Sonmez continued to tweet about the situation, saying she had received death threats, as well as telling other outlets she had also received rape threats.
“Well, THAT was eye-opening,” she said, “To the 10,000 people (literally) who commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story.”
“Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she added.
In another tweet, Sonmez included an image of her email inbox. That image also contained the names of some of the people who had reportedly sent threats to her.
Sonmez’s Twitter activity also prompted many others on social media to call for The Post to fire her.
Fire Felicia Sonmez now!!!!!!!!— MaineDemocrat1776 (@MDemocrat1776) January 26, 2020
Washington Post Suspends Sonmez
By Sunday night, Sonmez deleted all of her tweets relating to Bryant, and shortly thereafter, The Post announced it had suspended her.
In a statement, Tracy Grant, a managing editor for The Post, said that Sonmez, “was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy.”
“The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” she added.
Sonmez’s suspension then sparked its own amount of controversy online. While some still called for her to be fired, others criticized The Post for the move and said she should be reinstated.
The Post Reporters Support Sonmez
Much of Sonmez’s support came from nearly 350 of her fellow journalists at The Post, who all endorsed a statement from The Washington Post Guild that backed Sonmez.
Another one of Sonmez’s colleagues, Erik Wemple, wrote an opinion piece in The Post asking what policies Sonmez had violated.
“What did Sonmez do to deserve this brushback? he said. “She tweeted out a good story from the Daily Beast.”
In his column, Wemple argued that Sonmez was only reminding everyone of a real incident from Kobe’s life.
Also in an interview for the column, Somnez revealed that she had emailed two of her editors Sunday night to tell them about the threats.
She said she also included links to her tweets. Editor Tracy Grant then asked her to delete them. Sonmez, however, says she was a “little delayed” in taking them down, in part, because someone had doxxed her home address.
Later, Grant reportedly sent her another email reading that she’d be “in violation of a directive from a managing editor” if she didn’t delete her tweets. Sonmez complied, a move Wemple argued provided a victory for the people who had attacked her for posting a “perfectly fine news story.”
Sonmez also said, out of fear for her own safety, she checked into a hotel Sunday night, where she soon learned she was being placed on administrative leave immediately.
Grant then reportedly told Sonmez that her tweets didn’t “pertain” to her “coverage area” and that she was making it difficult for others at The Post to do their own work.
Arguing Grant’s point, Wemple said if The Post journalists can be suspended for tweeting outside of their beat, then the entire newsroom would be on leave. He also said Grant’s claim that Sonmez complicated others’ work needs supporting evidence.
Ending his column, Wemple recited one of The Post’s main principles:
“The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.”
The Post Reinstates Sonmez
On Tuesday, The Post announced it would be clearing and reinstating Sonmez effective immediately, with the newspaper’s editors admitting they had been out of line in suspending her.
“Reporters on social media represent The Washington Post, and our policy states ‘we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness and independence,’” Grant said in a statement. “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths. We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”
On Sonmez’s reinstatement, The Post Guild called the move “welcome,” but the union also noted that Grant’s statement didn’t include an apology to Sonmez. It also criticized The Post for not “[taking] swift action to provide her with protection and support.”
On Twitter, Sonmez also issued her own statement.
“I believe that Washington Post readers and employees, including myself, deserve to hear directly from [The Post’s editor] Marty Baron on the newspaper’s handling of this matter.”
See what others are saying: (WAMU) (Washingtonian) (The New York Times)
Black Americans Face Higher COVID-19 Death Rates in Some Areas
- In several cities and states around the country, black Americans are being hit harder by the coronavirus.
- In Louisiana and Chicago, black people account for 70% of the total deaths, despite being roughly a third of the population.
- Most states, however, are not releasing information about what racial groups are being impacted by the virus.
- The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and members of Congress have both sent their own letters encouraging the government to release this information. They believe that knowing what communities are being impacted the most is crucial in fighting the pandemic.
Disproportionate Rates Throughout Country
As states and cities across the country reveal that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, many are calling for data on race and the pandemic to be released nationwide.
Louisiana has a little under 15,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, which has led to 512 deaths. Of those who died, 70% were black. This number is particularly astonishing because, according to census data, black citizens make up roughly one-third of the state’s population.
During a press conference, Governor John Bel Edwards said that this death rate is “disturbing.”
“So that deserves more attention and we’re going to have to dig into that and see what we can do to slow that trend down,” Edwards added.
Louisiana is far from alone. In Chicago, African Americans also comprise close to one-third of the population, but they also account for 70% of COVID-19-related deaths.
As of Tuesday morning, the city has lost 118 people to the virus, with a 4.4 average death rate per 100,000 people. Eighty-one of those deaths have been black residents, who comparatively have a 10.3 death rate. This comes close to ten times the death rate any other racial population in the city is experiencing.
“Those numbers take your breath away,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters. “They really do. This is a call-to-action moment for all of us.”
In Milwaukee, where African Americans make up 27% of the population, the disparity is also massive. Not only are they leading confirmed cases, but also make up 35 of the state’s 49 total deaths.
There are several factors that could be contributing to this. African Americans are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to have pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure and asthma. On top of this, black Americans are also systematically under treated and more likely to be denied treatment or testing.
Medical issues aside, black Americans are also not working from home as frequently. According to the Economic Policy Institute, while 30% of white Americans and 37% of Asian Americans can work from home, only 20% of African Americans can. Hispanic and Latino workers have the least access to telecommuting at 16%. Those going out to work in the field, as opposed to saying home, are immediately at higher risk of exposing themselves to and contracting the coronavirus.
Not All Cities and States Release Info
Black Americans dying from the coronavirus at a higher rate is a trend across numerous states and cities, but we still do not know how widespread the issue is. The majority of localities have not released information about what racial groups are the the most impacted by COVID-19. According to NBC News, only nine full states have done so.
This lack of reporting could stem from a number of reasons. First, states are not required to do so. Second, collecting all this data could be difficult, and even if that data is collected, some might fear misinformation.
Still, many health experts believe this information is essential in combating the virus. There are big efforts to urge states and the federal government to collect and share this information with the public so that the imbalance can be addressed.
On Monday the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with nearly 400 medical professionals, sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services and related organizations to demand that these statistics be released to the public.
“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its subagencies are charged with ensuring that racial disparities do not persist in the administration of healthcare services, even in a pandemic,” they wrote.
In their letter, they cited that black Americans have higher rates of underlying conditions and cannot work from home on a large scale. They also added that black Americans face barriers in testing, and that they have also been disproportionately impacted in the recent surge of unemployment applications.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law claims the data is needed so public health officials can determine if marginalized communities are struggling when it comes to testing and treatment.
“The absence of this critical data on a national scale will severely hamper the ability to develop robust public health interventions responsive to the needs of communities of color,” the letter added. “This data is also needed to help fully understand COVID-19, and to help stem ongoing community spread of this novel and dangerous virus.”
Letter from Congress
Congress has also demanded action on this front. At the end of March, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), teamed up with Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Robin Kelly (D-IL) to write a letter to DHS Secretary Alex Azar. Together, they encouraged the DHS and the CDC to monitor racial disparities and how the pandemic is impacted by them.
“Although COVID-19 does not discriminate along racial or ethnic lines, existing racial disparities and inequities in health outcomes and health care access may mean that the nation’s response to preventing and mitigating its harms will not be felt equally in every community,” they wrote.
“This lack of information will exacerbate existing health disparities and result in the loss of lives in vulnerable communities,” the letter continued. “It will also hamper the efforts of public health officials to track and contain the novel coronavirus in the areas that are at the highest risk of continued spread.”
See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Politico) (Washington Post)
Exemptions for Religious Gatherings During Pandemic Cause Confusion
- About a dozen states that have issued stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic have also made exemptions for religious gatherings.
- A combination of mixed messaging from leaders, misreporting by the media, and overlapping decisions made at the state, county, and city levels have led to confusion about the exemptions.
- Even in states with very clear bans, several religious leaders have continued to hold gatherings, arguing that banning them violates the first amendment.
- Some churches in Arkansas, California, Illinois, and other states have already reported outbreaks that spread among members after they held large gatherings.
Religious Exemptions in States
With the Easter holidays rapidly approaching, state-wide exemptions for religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic have sparked confusion, concern, and a heated debate about religious freedoms.
Part of the confusion stems from the difficulty in pinning down exactly how many places that have shelter in place orders also have exemptions for religious gatherings.
According to the New York Times, “41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.”
In some places, like California, in-person religious gatherings have been outright banned throughout the whole state. In others, it is not as clear-cut.
This is not helped by a large amount of misreporting on how many states have religious exemptions.
Some of the misreporting and confusion is due to the fact that while some states explicitly list religious gatherings as exempt, others, like Alabama and South Carolina, just provide a list of entities that have to close. Those lists do not include religious organizations.
Around a dozen states have some kind of religious exemption for stay-at-home orders.
Florida, Texas & Religious Freedoms
There’s also an issue with overlapping authority regarding decisions made at the state level versus the county and city levels.
For example, last week, Florida megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for holding services despite the shelter in place order in Hillsborough County, where his church was.
A few days later, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis implemented a state-wide safer and home order that explicitly allowed religious gatherings.
“There’s no reason why you can’t do a church service with people spread 10 feet apart, so we definitely ask them to abide by social distancing guidelines, but I think, in times like this, the service they are providing is very important for people,” DeSantis said, despite the fact that there was no clear indication in his order that social distancing rules needed to be followed.
Following DeSantis’ announcement, Howard-Browne said he will keep his church shut down because he received death threats, though he still pushed back against the county’s now-defunct order.
“The First Amendment provides express protections to houses of worship and assembly,” he said in a statement. “There is no similar constitutional protection for commercial businesses; yet houses of worship and religious gatherings are signaled out for discrimination.”
Religious institutions are largely believed to be protected from regulations in the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that a law cannot “unduly burden” a religion unless there is a “compelling interest.”
But whether or not the pandemic can be considered “compelling” is a much bigger and more complicated constitutional debate, as there is no precedent for a pandemic in the modern world of this scale and magnitude.
Florida is not alone here. Last week, three pastors in Texas filed a lawsuit against Harris County, where Houston is located, after a stay-at-home order that barred religious gatherings was put in place.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also signed a statewide shelter in place order that allowed religious gatherings a few days later, and like in Florida, the state-wide order in Texas effectively made the local orders moot.
Mixes Messages & Ignored Orders
Mixed messaging from leaders has also added to the confusion.
The Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio generated viral buzz Sunday after a CNN report showed numerous cars leaving a Palm Sunday service. When one of the drivers was asked if she was concerned about spreading the virus, she responded, “No, I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”
According to reports, the town’s mayor had specifically asked that the church stop holding in-person services, a request which it rejected.
The point was also echoed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“Any pastor who brings people together, in close proximity to each other, a large group of people, is making a huge mistake,” he said. “It’s not a Christian thing to do.”
That, however, was confusing to some, because DeWine was the one who issued the order allowing for religious exemptions in the first place.
But even in places where there are very clear-cut orders explicitly banning religious gatherings, some churches are outright ignoring them.
In Louisiana, Pastor Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church held services Sunday despite the fact that he had been arrested for violating the state’s order and holding services just a few days earlier.
In Sacramento, the Bethany Slavic Missionary megachurch reportedly continued to hold services even after 71 members of the congregation tested positive for the coronavirus. The church was shuttered as of this weekend.
Hotspot for Spread
The Bethany Slavic Missionary church was not the only religious institution that has made way for the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, several religious gatherings have proven to be hotspots for the contraction and spread of the virus.
In February, six people who attended a church conference at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky tested positive. North Carolina public health officials have said “multiple cases” of the virus are connected to a March event held by the Faith Assembly Christian Center at another hotel Durham.
Rural Minnesota has reported at least nine cases that were traced to one church, and at least 10 members of a church in a suburb of Chicago got sick after a March 15 service.
In Arkansas, more than three dozen people who attended a children’s event at a church tested positive at the end of March.
See what others are saying: (ABC News) (The Hill) (The Guardian)
White House Experts Clash Over Promotion of Hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 Treatment
- Axios reported that presidential trade adviser Peter Navarro heatedly confronted Dr. Anthony Fauci on Saturday over whether or not there has been “clear” evidence showing hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness against COVID-19.
- The fiery exchange did little to stifle President Trump’s praise of the drug, as he continued to push it in back-to-back press conferences this weekend.
- On Sunday, Trump cut off a reporter trying to ask Dr. Fauci about his thoughts on hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness.
Navarro Clashes With Fauci Over Hydroxychloroquine
The debate within the Trump Administration on how to advertise hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 heated up over the weekend in a fiery exchange between presidential trade adviser Peter Navarro and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
According to an exclusive report by Axios, that confrontation happened Saturday afternoon in the White House Situation Room. It began after Commissioner of Food and Drugs Stephen Hahn began talking about hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that’s being investigated to possibly treat COVID-19 patients.
President Trump has frequently touted it at press conferences, calling it a “game-changer” for the United States. Many scientists like Dr. Fauci, however, have been more cautious on how to present the drug to the public since it’s not currently approved to treat COVID-19. This is because hydroxychloroquine has a number of known side effects, including heart and vision problems.
While their argument isn’t to necessarily prevent hydroxychloroquine from ever being used, scientists simply want to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks before it gets widespread use.
In the meeting, Hahn reportedly started giving updates regarding different hydroxychloroquine trials.
Navarro then got up, and according to an Axios source familiar with the situation, “…the first words out of his mouth are that the studies that he’s seen, I believe they’re mostly overseas, show ‘clear therapeutic efficacy.’ Those are the exact words out of his mouth.”
Fauci then pushed back, saying that at the moment, the evidence for those studies and hydroxychloroquine’s effectiveness is only anecdotal. Notably, that is something he’s repeatedly said in the past weeks.
Fauci’s comment reportedly set Navarro off. According to Axios’ sources, Navarro then pointed to those studies and said, “That’s science, not anecdote.”
Reportedly, he then started yelling and accused Dr. Fauci of objecting to Trump’s travel restrictions, saying, “You were the one who early on objected to the travel restrictions with China.”
Dr. Fauci and others then reportedly looked confused, likely because Fauci has praised Trump’s travel restrictions on China.
Following that, Vice President Mike Pence and others reportedly tried to moderate the discussion, a source saying, “It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get [Navarro] to sit down and stop being so confrontational.”
Eventually, Jared Kushner reportedly managed to convince Navarro and everyone else to change the conversation to hot zones in the U.S.
Before they did, they agreed that the administration’s stance should be that the decision to use the drug is between patients and doctors prescribing it off-label.
“There has never been a confrontation in the task force meetings like the one yesterday,” Axios’ sources said. “People speak up and there’s robust debate, but there’s never been a confrontation. Yesterday was the first confrontation.”
Monday morning, Navarro spoke on that disagreement and defended himself on CNN, saying, “Doctors disagree about things all the time. My qualifications in terms of looking at the science is that I’m a social scientist. I have a Ph. D. And I understand how to read statistical studies, whether it’s in medicine, the law, economics or whatever.”
Trump Continues to Tout Hydroxychloroquine
Despite a notable escalation in tensions over hydroxychloroquine among President Doanld Trump’s advisers, it did not seem to stop Trump from propping up the drug this weekend.
“What do you have to lose?” Trump said Saturday. “It’s been out there for a long time, and I hope they use it. And they’re going to look at the—with doctors, work with doctors, get what you have to get.
“And I hope they use it because it’s been used for a long time and therefore, it’s passed the safety tests,” he continued.
“In fact, I might do it anyway,” Trump added on hydroxychloroquine. “I may take it. I’ll have to ask my doctors about that, but I may take it.”
Alongside that, Trump said that the U.S. has stockpiled 29 million pills of hydroxychloroquine.
Trump continued to rush hydroxychloroquine as a treatment on Sunday, saying, “We don’t have time to say, ‘Gee, let’s go and take a couple of years and test it out. And let’s go and test with the test tubes and the laboratories.’ We don’t have time. I’d love to do that, but we have people dying today, as we speak, there are people dying.”
Sunday’s press briefing, however, was eclipsed by another moment when Trump cut off a reporter as that reporter tried to ask Dr. Fauci a question regarding his opinion on the use of hydroxychloroquine.
“Would you also weigh in on this issue of hydroxychloroquine? What do you think about this and what is the medical evidence?” a reporter asked Fauci, who was taking questions from the podium
“Do you know how many times he’s answered that question?” Trump asked, stepping forward from the side as Dr. Fauci “Maybe fifteen. Fifteen times. You don’t have to ask the question.”
“The question is for the doctor,” the reporter said. “He’s your medical expert, correct?”
“He’s answered that question 15 times,” Trump repeated before moving onto the next question.
Where Is the U.S. With Hydroxychloroquine?
Right now, the United States is likely still months away from knowing whether or not hydroxychloroquine will prove to be effective against COVID-19.
That said, clinical trials have already begun in New York. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration also approved hydroxychloroquine for emergency treatment.
On Sunday, Pence announced another clinical trial, a 3,000 person trial set to begin with the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. Specifically, it will look at whether or not hydroxychloroquine will prevent COVID-19 in healthcare workers battling the virus.
“This is going to be the first major, definitive study in healthcare workers and first responders of hydroxychloroquine as a preventative medication,” said Dr. William O’Neill with the Henry Ford Health System. “There has been a lot of talk about this drug, but only a small, non-blinded study in Europe. We are going to change that in Metro Detroit and produce a scientific answer to the question: Does it work?”
Still, that study will also take at least a few months to conduct. Even then, doctors are warning that timely caution is the best practice for this drug.
“There could be negative side effects,” President of the American Medical Association Dr. Patrice Harris said on CNN. “There could be deaths. This is a new virus, and so we should not be promoting any medication or drug for any disease that has not been proven and approved by the FDA.”
“You could lose your life,” she added after being asked about potential dangers. “It’s unproven. And so certainly there are some limited studies, as Dr. Fauci said. But at this point, we just don’t have the data to suggest that we should be using this medication for COVID-19.”