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A Washington Post Editor’s “Inappropriate” Tweet Fans the Culture Wars Inside the Paper

Reporter Felicia Sonmez calls out editor Lori Montgomery. The two have history.

Photograph by Evy Mages

Over the weekend, Washington Post business editor Lori Montgomery tweeted, then deleted, criticism of a column that called Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger “a real jackass.” The “only interesting thing” about Drew Magary’s article, Montgomery, a native of Butler County, Pennsylvania (north of Pittsburgh), tweeted, was “how easily disproven and completely FOS [full of shit] it is.”

The column addressed, among other incidents, accusations of sexual assault that women have made against Roethlisberger. And with her Friday night tweet, Montgomery kicked a hornet’s nest that has grown inside the Post‘s internal culture for some time now.

A little more than an hour after Montgomery tweeted her defense of Roethlisberger, Post national political reporter Felicia Sonmez screenshotted it and noted that Magary’s column referenced facts the Post reported as well.

And here is where things get complex. After Kobe Bryant died in January 2020, Sonmez tweeted a link to a Daily Beast article about Bryant settling a sexual-assault lawsuit. She faced intense backlash online and was suspended by the Post—former Executive Editor Marty Baron told her she was “hurting” the publication. Staffers and the Post Guild protested the suspension, and the paper, whose social media policies date to 2011, soon reinstated her.

Sonmez wasn’t the only staffer to run afoul of the Post‘s unclear rules about social media. Former Post reporter Wesley Lowery was chastised by management for criticizing an article by New York Times journalist Jeremy Peters, a rule he said in a response was “broken daily, by many members of the newsroom.” He has since left the Post.

Both of these events evince a simmering culture war in many newsrooms: Broadly speaking, some journalists chafe at newspapers’ traditionally top-down cultures, while others can be aghast at what they view as attention-seeking antics. (These schisms frequently break along generational lines: I reported last year that as he searched for Baron’s replacement, Post Publisher Fred Ryan asked candidates about how they’d keep the newsroom under control.)

At the Post, Sonmez’s suspension raised further questions not only about her career but also about whether the Post is a workplace where people who have survived traumatic experiences like sexual assault can continue to do their jobs and feel safe and supported. Unlike Lowery, Sonmez stayed at the Post, and last July she sued her employer, saying that after she revealed to higher ups that she had been the victim of sexual assault, they had banned her from any coverage that touched on the subject. Among the Post brass Sonmez named as defendants in the suit: Lori Montgomery.

The suit says Montgomery “told Ms. Sonmez that she was always taught that a woman should ‘just say no’ if a man tries to assault her.” Montgomery was at the time the Post‘s deputy national editor; Sally Buzbee, who replaced Baron as executive editor last year, named Montgomery editor of the business desk in late July. The Post has moved to dismiss Sonmez’s case.

Others named in Sonmez’s lawsuit have been since been promoted as well, including Cameron Barr, who was one of the Post‘s managing editors and in October was named Buzbee’s second-in-command. Barr and Steven Ginsberg, who was national editor and Sonmez’s boss, both applied for the executive editor gig but lost out to Buzbee. Last week the Post named Ginsberg one of its managing editors. Tracy Grant, the managing editor for standards who was also named in Sonmez’s suit, “requested a return to writing,” Buzbee wrote in a memo this past October.

So! Given this significant volume of backstory, why on earth would Montgomery stir the pot with, of all things, a tweet that criticized a non-Post journalist’s article, which involved allegations of sexual assault? Montgomery apparently thought better of her original post the next day; she wrote at lunchtime Saturday that she’d deleted the tweet and “did not intend to question the validity” of the accusations against Roethlisberger. Montgomery wrote that she “has been sexually assaulted myself” and “deeply regret my poorly-framed tweet.” (Montgomery has since locked her account.)

In an email, Post spokesperson Kristine Coratti Kelly writes that Montgomery’s “tweet was inappropriate, and the issue has been addressed internally.” The paper’s social media policy will be updated once the Post hires a new standards editor, she writes, “and will be done with staff input.” Sonmez declined to comment to Washingtonian, but she posted this thread over the weekend:

On Monday the Post‘s Guild sent a note to members that called Montgomery’s tweet “unacceptable, irresponsible and harmful” and said the union’s leadership has “asked the masthead to address this incident with staff and take concrete steps to make sure survivors feel safe and not silenced.” The note also encourages Post employees to ask Buzbee about the incident.

As it happens, in a separate memo sent to staffers Monday, Buzbee announced three town halls to be held on Zoom on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week to discuss “news goals for 2022, ambitions for the future, how we hope to keep staff/team communication strong in the continued pandemic, and anything else you want to discuss.” There will be time for questions during the meetings, Buzbee writes. It seems likely that Montgomery’s tweet may come up.

This article has been updated.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.