Staffers Say Sexism Runs Deep At The Washington Post

There’s an "understated respectability" that is "secretly pernicious," said one woman.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez received death and rape threats for a tweet she sent out late last month linking to a story about sexual assault allegations against Kobe Bryant, shortly after news broke of the NBA star’s death. Someone found Sonmez’s home address and published it online. Instead of rushing to protect her from abuse or worse, her editors suspended her and suggested she go to a hotel for her safety.

The situation was different for national security reporter Shane Harris last spring. Harris also was getting harassed online, although not at the same level of intensity as his colleague. Someone discovered his home address. He told his editors.

The Post quickly dispatched a security guard to Harris’s home. The guard was armed and provided round-the-clock security for 72 hours, according to people familiar with the situation.

The differing treatment of the two reporters is the latest example of unequal treatment of men and women at the Post, according to one former contractor and seven current and former staffers who spoke to HuffPost in the days after Sonmez was suspended. None wanted to use their names on the record for fear of retaliation from management or potential career damage for speaking out against a powerful news organization. Fears were particularly acute given what had happened to Sonmez.

“The place is run by men and it creates a particular atmosphere and assigns a higher value to certain male characteristics. I've been a victim of it in a broad way, as most women in the newsroom have.”

- a female staffer at The Washington Post

Some expressed a hesitancy to criticize the Post now, when the paper’s reporting and credibility is under attack by a White House hostile to the press. The delicacy of this moment makes their criticism all the more notable.

The Washington Post doesn’t value women and men in the same way, these people said. This appears literally true when it comes to pay: Women in the newsroom are paid less than men, according to a report published last year by the union that represents employees. (The paper disputed the findings at the time.) One former Post contractor told HuffPost she was let go after asking for a raise.

The disparity courses through the culture and is borne out in the paper’s coverage, where stories of sexual harassment have sometimes been held to a higher standard than other coverage, some staffers said.

Crucially, the gender imbalance is clear in the masthead. Three of the four top editors at the Post are men. Only four of 17 department heads are women.

“The place is run by men and it creates a particular atmosphere and assigns a higher value to certain male characteristics,” said one female reporter. “I’ve been a victim of it in a broad way, as most women in the newsroom have.”

Another staffer put it this way: “It seems that there’s a blind spot when it comes to the needs of female employees. So when this incident with Felicia happened, it turned up all these other concerns and worries and long-standing issues.”

In an emailed statement, The Washington Post argued that it is a fair and unbiased place to work. “We dispute your narrative,” wrote Kristine Coratti Kelly, a spokeswoman for the newspaper.

“The Washington Post has been equitable in its hiring, promotion and compensation for employees, in its security deployment on behalf of employees and in the high standards it applies to all stories,” she wrote.

Asked about the difference between the way Sonmez and Harris were treated, Coratti Kelly said that the paper takes security “extremely seriously” and that half of the paper’s “security deployments” were for women.

“Our process and protocols are the same for every case where one of our employees is threatened, without exception,” Coratti Kelly said, while also noting that “each case is handled based on the specific facts at play.”

She Asked For A Raise — And Got Fired

The situation can be worse for female contract reporters, who aren’t on staff yet but often put in full-time hours, particularly in foreign bureaus.

One former contractor, a woman assigned to an outpost overseas, told HuffPost that she had been fired after asking for a pay increase.

She first broached the subject in July at a breakfast meeting with her boss’s boss, foreign editor Doug Jehl, the woman told HuffPost, declining to be named for fear of career reprisals. She had just recently thrown her hat in the ring for a promotion to a staff position.

As a contractor, relative to her male counterparts, she was underpaid, she told Jehl, citing a conversation with the Post’s union. The subject set him off. “It was like a red flag to a bull. He got angry. He raised his voice,” she said. He told her she’d have to leave the paper if she brought up the issue again, she recalled him saying.

The next morning, sitting at a Starbucks, Jehl said her contract would not be renewed after it expired at the end of the year. “‘You want more money and job security and we can’t give that to you,’” she recalled him saying.

She decided to take up matters with leadership a few months later in September, writing an email to Martin Baron, the executive editor of the paper. HuffPost reviewed the exchange. She described how much she liked working for the Post and how disappointed she was in the way her situation was handled.

“I don’t believe the way I’ve been treated reflects the values you espouse or aspire to for the Post,” she wrote.

She provided Baron with an outline of what happened:

When I asked him for a raise, he told me to look for a job in another company. Mine wasn’t a demand. It was a statement of my own perceived value to the company and as a reporter. My sense is that you expect journalists to stand up for themselves and act professionally. I felt I did both. The next day, Doug told me my [job] application was not being considered, and my contract was not being renewed. I spoke to [managing editor] Tracy Grant about this on the same day, and she told me I could leave immediately and still get my salary through the end of the contract if I wished.

In his response, Baron said they were sticking to their decision to let her go, stating that it was part of a rethink of the entire bureau. He acknowledged the circumstances of her dismissal only slightly. “I’m disappointed to hear that you believe the changes in the bureau have not been handled properly,” he wrote. “We will have nothing other than positive things to say about you to any potential future employers.”

The woman reached out to lawyers about the possibility of a discrimination suit, according to an email reviewed by HuffPost. But since she was a contractor, nothing could really be done, she was told.

Jehl did not respond to a request for comment. The Washington Post said it would not comment on the specifics of hiring decisions, but said other female contractors have been hired as staffers.

The former contractor is still looking for work.

Women In The Newsroom Aren’t Paid As Much As Men

Pay isn’t just a contractor problem. Women in the Post newsroom are collectively paid less than men, according to the union’s report, which examined salaries among about 500 members in the newsroom. The salaried men in the newsroom earn a median of $116,065 a year. The median for women is $95,595. The gap is widest for staffers under 40: Young men earn $95,890 compared to $84,030 for women. The report used age as a proxy for experience, which it did not expressly track.

Men also receive a higher percentage of merit-based pay raises. The union found a racial pay gap as well: The median pay for women of color is $30,000 less than it is for white men.

The report notes that the pay gap has shrunk in recent years since billionaire Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought the paper.

In interviews for the report, employees said they had learned they were paid less than co-workers doing the same job, even with the same experience. They said the hiring process favors outsiders who come from higher-paying competitors, which, the report says, “sets back women, people of color, and journalists from smaller publications,” who are underpaid.

The report contains testimonials from newsroom employees who’ve been underpaid at the paper ― including men who started as interns. One male reporter is still paid $70,000 after 20 years with the paper, according to the report.

One woman described as a “veteran reporter,” with more than 20 years experience, said that the man who held her job as a foreign bureau chief before she did earned $50,000 more despite having fewer years of experience.

One staffer told HuffPost that women inside the Post have been asking their managers for pay increases to catch up to their male colleagues, but the pace of change has been glacial. “Quite often their direct bosses are telling them, ‘You’re right,’” she said. “Yet years can go by and unless you have an outside offer or an incredible year or whatever, it can be really difficult to catch up.”

The Post disputed the union report’s findings after it was published. Factors like “position, years of experience, and performance” weren’t taken into account, spokeswoman Coratti Kelly told the Washingtonian.

Few Women At The Tippy Top

It’s not that The Washington Post doesn’t have high-profile women, staffers emphasized to HuffPost. There are star female reporters at the paper. Indeed, a majority of the newsroom staff — approximately 800 employees — is female, just like the U.S. workforce generally.

However, when it comes to the most senior managerial roles at the Post, it’s still a man’s world, employees told HuffPost. Just four of the paper’s 17 department heads are women. The Post’s arguably most prestigious sections — including the national, investigative and foreign desks — are run by men. Some have female deputies.

This is an issue other papers have struggled with, too.

“There are women when you get down four layers, great women,” said one female staffer. “You have the top leadership, all men. You just wonder how that’s impacting things. I think that whether they realize it or not, that sends a message.”

There is one powerful woman in the top section of the masthead: Tracy Grant is only the second woman to make it to managing editor at the Post and was promoted to that role in 2018 at a time when few women were on the masthead or in leadership. (At one point in 2014, the masthead was all male.) She is considered Baron’s second-in-command and holds sway in the newsroom.

Yet two female staffers expressed dismay that Grant sends out office-wide emails that seem like tasks she should have delegated to an assistant. Over the past few months, Grant has sent out notes about issues around streaming the impeachment, an event involving snacks and HR benefit info, and cleaning out the office fridge. “Anything left there will be handled by one disgruntled managing editor,” she wrote in that email, obtained by HuffPost. These staffers said the other three top editors, all men, don’t write these kinds of emails.

“Just four of the paper’s 17 department heads are women. The Post’s arguably most prestigious sections are run by men. Some have female deputies.”

“Whether they realize it or not, that sends a message,” said one staffer.

“Tracy is a veteran journalist who oversees some of the most sensitive matters in the newsroom and she is an invaluable voice on all major decisions regarding the management of the newsroom,” spokeswoman Coratti Kelly wrote HuffPost. “To attempt to diminish that with a few emails (on matters outside her direct responsibilities) that she occasionally sent for the benefit of her colleagues is unfair and insulting to her stature in the company.”

Me Too Stories Held To Higher Standard

“What Was the Washington Post Afraid Of?” That was the title of a widely read piece in New York magazine last year that described the Post’s struggles with publishing a story about sexual misconduct.

Irin Carmon, a freelancer for the Post who is now a senior correspondent for New York magazine, described how she tried — and failed — to publish a story about sexual misconduct allegations against Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes.” (The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow ultimately ran a story about Fager, who was forced out of his job.)

Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron (right) with actor Liev Schreiber, who played the editor in the 2015 movie "Spotlight."
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron (right) with actor Liev Schreiber, who played the editor in the 2015 movie "Spotlight."
Taylor Hill via Getty Images

During the editing process for the Fager story, one of The Washington Post’s male editors went to Baron and asked that female editors be included in reviewing the story, she wrote. “Baron agreed but added that all decisions about the story would be made strictly on the basis of journalism,” Carmon wrote, which seemed to suggest that Baron didn’t understand how the perspective of a woman might deepen understanding of the subject matter.

In the case of these Me Too stories, powerful male editors might empathize more with a man being accused of misconduct than a woman who’s experienced mistreatment, Carmon wrote.

“It’s easier for a lot of us to believe that a man’s career matters more than the hypothetical losses of the women he might have harmed,” she wrote.

To be sure, The Washington Post has published some of the most important journalism on sexual misconduct in recent years. Reporter David Farenthold broke the story about the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women by their genitals.

The Post’s reporting on Roy Moore’s pursuit of teenage girls contributed to his loss in the 2017 race for an Alabama Senate seat.

That same year, Carmon and investigative reporter Amy Brittain broke the story about Charlie Rose’s history of sexual misconduct, leading to his ouster at CBS.

Staffers inside the Post emphasized the paper’s award-winning work on these stories. But they also cited Carmon’s Fager piece as an example of how there appear to be different standards for different topics.

“If you categorize the treatment of how sexual assault stories are sourced, compared to political stories and how they’re sourced, you see different standards,” said Nikki Usher, a media and politics professor at the University of Illinois. This isn’t just a Washington Post problem. “None of the major outlets have been able to explain this.”

That’s partly due to fears over being sued for libel or getting a story wrong, she added. But it’s also “because men don’t believe women.”

National security stories, for example, often feature unnamed sources making what can be explosive accusations. Anonymity is granted because the consequences of talking to the press are so high, while the subject matter is of the utmost importance.

However, for a story about sexual misconduct, at least in the Fager case that Carmon described, the Post insisted that the women go on record with their names. Surely, the consequences for those women were high, too — and the subject matter was important. The physical safety of anyone working with such a prominent man is at stake.

The Post disputed Carmon’s story at the time. “The suggestion that The Post’s decision-making — made in agreement by five senior editors — was influenced by anything other than established journalistic standards is baseless and reprehensible,” Coratti Kelly said in a statement to Poynter.

Journalists inside and outside the Post rallied to support Sonmez after she was suspended last month and, amid the outcry, the Post’s leaders reinstated her. Though Sonmez’s tweets were “ill-timed,” they didn’t violate any social media policy, Grant said in a Jan. 28 statement. “We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter,” she said.

Later in the week, Baron sent an email to the newsroom, discussing social media policy and emphasizing that the editors take security seriously. “In this environment, it’s essential that you feel safe and supported,” he said. Neither the statement nor the email contained any sort of apology or acknowledgment that Sonmez may not have felt this way.

The Washington Post has long been known for a kind of swaggering macho-brand of journalism, a la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men.” Like most large newspapers, it was long a man’s world.

Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor who broke the Watergate story, once rejected a job candidate by saying “nothing clanks when he walks” — the implication being that he didn’t have balls of steel.

Of course, that was decades ago, but that cultural echo isn’t gone. Some of the women HuffPost spoke with described an undercurrent of male bravado.

“There’s a dweeby beta-male quotient at the Post. They’re not openly macho,” a female staffer said. “There’s an understated respectability that is secretly pernicious and sexist operating in that place.”

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