Behind the Bombshell Allegation Buried in the WaPo Lawsuit

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Last month, Washington Post political reporter Felicia Sonmez didn’t just sue her employer for discriminating against her as a woman and a sexual-assault survivor. She alleged that while she was prohibited from covering sexual misconduct stories, the paper’s top editors had allowed a prominent male journalist to cover similar stories, despite an allegation of misconduct.

In the lawsuit, Sonmez revealed she was told about a male colleague who continued to report on stories related to sexual misconduct even though he allegedly sent “an unsolicited photo of his underwear-covered crotch to a young woman.”

That incident, Sonmez’s suit alleged, is representative of discrimination against her. While she had been barred from covering MeToo-related stories after she disclosed her own assault, former Post Executive Editor Marty “Baron never ordered that the [male] reporter be banned from covering stories related to sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior by men,” the lawsuit alleged.

The disclosure set off a whirlwind of speculation and raised Post staffers’ concerns about hypocritical treatment of Sonmez, while catching the eye of many foreign correspondents who’d previously heard rumors of the allegations.

The Daily Beast has confirmed that the lawsuit referred to allegations made several years ago against Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Simon Denyer, the paper’s bureau chief for Japan and the Koreas. According to five people with knowledge of the matter, Denyer—who has previously served as a bureau chief in China and India—was investigated by the paper in 2018 after Post leadership became aware of allegations that he sent an “unsolicited pantless” photo to another journalist. Post management ultimately determined no professional wrongdoing on Denyer’s part and issued a warning.

The Washington Post declined to comment. After The Daily Beast reached out to Denyer for comment, Matthew L. Schwartz, an attorney from Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, the firm that previously represented Harvey Weinstein, sent The Daily Beast a legal letter on the Tokyo bureau chief’s behalf but declined to offer any statement, details, or clarifications on the record.

Washington Post Threatened Another Star Reporter Over His Tweets

The allegations stemmed from a 2018 WeChat message conversation among foreign correspondents in China grappling with the fallout of a MeToo incident in their community: Law student Laura Tucker publicly accused then-Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief Jonathan Kaiman of pressuring her into sex. The accusation sparked a flurry of discussion among the dozens of reporters in the chat, including Denyer, who at the time led the Post’s China bureau. (The group text was primarily used to organize amateur soccer matches held at the British embassy in Beijing.)

Several men in the group initially defended Kaiman and criticized Tucker. One member described Tucker as a “fucking bitch,” while a BBC correspondent described the situation as a “witch hunt” against Kaiman.

Other journalists were mortified. One female journalist, a China correspondent for a Western news outlet, criticized the dismissiveness, saying that some of the men in the group previously tried to block her from joining the soccer matches.

“We obviously have different recollections,” Denyer wrote to the female journalist in the messages, reviewed by The Daily Beast. “But strangely enough we usually concentrate on playing football not sexed [sic].”

In response, the female journalist dropped a bombshell in front of the entire group, which included dozens of journalists and diplomats. “Your snarkiness is in contrast to the thoughtful piece on the China #metoo movement you did. But it’s not surprising as you’ve sent me an unsolicited pantless photo of yourself,” she replied, according to screenshots of the chat. (The Daily Beast is not publishing her name, at her request.)

Her claims about Denyer, which quickly circulated among other foreign correspondents, made their way back to Post leadership who began an investigation into his behavior. That investigation was led by Tracy Grant, a Post managing editor who investigates and rules on many of the paper’s sensitive internal questions. In a series of phone calls, Grant remotely interviewed some of the women who worked with the Post in China and had interacted with Denyer.

Since the chat group incident, Denyer has written about the MeToo movement both in China and Japan, including an early 2018 piece headlined, “Chinese women reveal sexual harassment, but #MeToo movement struggles for air.”

“China’s #MeToo moment still hasn’t arrived, suppressed by a patriarchal culture and a male-dominated one-party state that obsessively protects those in power,” he reported at the time. As Sonmez’s lawsuit suggested, none of Denyer’s reporting on such subjects contained a disclosure of the allegations made against him.

“It’s extremely fucked up. You treat the victim worse than someone accused of this stuff,“ James Palmer, a Foreign Policy editor and veteran China correspondent, told The Daily Beast. In 2018, Palmer edited a story for the magazine alleging widespread sexual misconduct among Western reporters in Beijing, including the sending of unsolicited photos on WeChat.

According to two people familiar with the situation, Grant’s investigation ultimately found there was no professional wrongdoing warranting Denyer’s dismissal, and he was given a warning.

While the Denyer matter was largely settled, the Post’s feud with Sonmez over her ability to cover sexual misconduct has threatened to turn a spotlight on years-old events as her lawsuit proceeds.

The Post itself has attempted to downplay coverage of the suit (and avoid possible legal headaches) by adopting a policy of radio silence. The paper has not commented publicly on the litigation, and top editors have advised staff not to discuss it on Slack. During an all-hands meeting earlier this week, Post management did not take questions or make any statements about the matter.

Sonmez has been the subject of a number of controversial editorial moves by Post management that have been heavily criticized by her peers in the newsroom. Early last year, the paper suspended her when, on the day basketball star Kobe Bryant died, she tweeted a Daily Beast article noting the disturbing years-old rape allegations against him. While Grant initially said in a statement that Sonmez “displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues,” the paper reversed course just a day later.

The drama has also turned the spotlight on former Post editor Marty Baron, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Baron arrived at the Post with an impressive resume—he served as top editor at the Boston Globe when it published a Pulitzer-winning investigation into child molestation by Catholic priests. And under his leadership, the Post racked up an impressive series of major bombshell stories, especially as the ascent of Donald Trump led to renewed public interest in investigative reporting.

But Baron’s suspension of Sonmez, among other controversial internal policies, has at times threatened to overshadow the accolades.

During a conversation earlier this month with the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Association, Baron was asked if he would have handled the matter any differently. He stood behind his decision making.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he said.

Just as Baron was wrapping up his comments, Sonmez filed her lawsuit against her former editor.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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