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8 June

The Washington Post would throw staff under the bus to preserve its brand

Dave Weigel’s suspension is a statement about company culture, not cancel culture.

By Eoin Higgins

When the Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel retweeted an off-colour, offensively misogynistic joke last Friday (3 June) he set off a firestorm of criticism, inside and outside the newsroom. Weigel swiftly un-tweeted the offending post and apologised, but it was too late. On Monday he was suspended without pay for a month.

It’s hard to look at Weigel’s suspension and not see it as fundamentally a case of a company throwing one staffer under the bus in an attempt to squash an unpleasant story. The Post‘s reaction shouldn’t be seen as an example of “cancel culture” or “the woke mob”. Weigel was not suspended because socially liberal Twitter users have disproportionate power but because the newspaper, owned by Jeff Bezos, is trying to smother bad news and put all the blame on one of its staffers.

While Weigel’s actions were unpleasant, even worthy of punishment under the Post’s social media policy, which tells journalists to “refrain from” tweets that could “objectively be perceived” as sexist, his suspension is excessive. But for the Post, when the alternative is dealing with its internal culture and ensuring there’s a consistent approach to how social media is used by staff, brushing the problem under the rug for a month is far preferable.

Not that it appears to have worked. On Friday Felicia Sonmez, a Post reporter, tweeted that it was “Fantastic to work at a news outlet where retweets like this are allowed!” — elevating what probably would have been a distasteful but largely forgotten event into a PR disaster. Since then Sonmez, who has had her own struggles with the paper’s internal culture, has spent the last five days as a relentless critic of her employer and coworkers on Twitter, calling out a toxic workplace and unfairly applied standards.

In January 2020, when Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash, Sonmez was placed on administrative leave for tweeting, hours after the basketball player’s death, about allegations that he had assaulted a woman. It was one of the more ridiculous, and cowardly, acts by the Post’s management. But by suspending Sonmez simply for reporting the verifiable, and hardly unknown, fact that Bryant had been accused the Post may have set a precedent that it felt it had to honour.

In Weigel’s case the Post’s largely incoherent response to the commotion didn’t help. At first the paper appeared to ignore what was happening, perhaps in the hope that it would go away. When that became impossible, editors sent out emails internally to try to calm things down. They were promptly leaked. Only after all of that did the Post suspend Weigel. 

The punishment is so far out of proportion to the crime that it beggars belief. While Weigel’s behaviour may have violated internal policies, the message sent by the delay in punishment makes it quite clear that the paper is willing to throw any workers in the newsroom under the bus to preserve its brand. The Post‘s actions seem calculated to cover its back at the expense of one of its reporters. It’s also a labour issue; the newsroom should not let this slide.

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The implications go further than one suspension. A calculated move on the part of the Post to deflect anger towards one employee rather than address newsroom culture and the limits of social media policies is going to pay off. It may not kill the story as quickly as the Post would like, but it has the advantage of sending a clear message to staffers — that the boss has the power.

[See also: There’s a problem with university culture – but it isn’t the students]

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