As it celebrates Watergate triumph 50 years ago, Washington Post newsroom rages in turmoil

As the Washington Post celebrates half-a-century since its legendary scoop, the modern newsroom is dealing with the fallout from a number of internal dramatic arcs.

Published: June 20, 2022 12:51pm

Updated: June 21, 2022 8:38am

As the Washington Post celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Watergate reporting, which shook a nation and brought a presidency to its knees, its current newsroom is hurtling through multiple dramas ranging from reporters' public temper-tantrums to embarrassing corrections.

Earlier this month, the Post stomached its arguably most intense news cycle yet, when national political reporter Felicia Sonmez was canned following days of excoriating her colleagues on Twitter. 

Sonmez's scorched earth internet campaign was, at least initially, the result of political reporter Dave Weigel's decision to retweet an unseemly joke about women, which he promptly deleted and apologized for promoting. Weigel was ultimately handed a one-month suspension and Sonmez, after being chastised by some of her fellow colleagues for the "cruelty you regularly unleash against colleagues," was fired by her employer for insubordination.  

Sonmez was previously suspended in January of 2020 for tweeting, hours after his death, links to detailed allegations of sexual assault made against Kobe Bryant. The paper's suspension of Sonmez, a self-identified survivor of sexual assault, was heavily criticized. Sonmez also sued the Post and some of her former bosses for temporarily barring her from covering stories about sexual misconduct.

The Sonmez/Weigel saga, however, is only the latest example of the famed news outlet becoming the story, rather than delivering the news to its readers.

Since luring tech reporter Taylor Lorenz from The New York Times earlier this year, her journalism has attracted unfavorable attention and corrections. From mining information from the teenage daughter of a former Trump administration official to sobbing on MSNBC about online harassment and then publicly blaming the network for making her look bad, Lorenz continues to generate increasingly negative headlines.

Most recently, Lorenz publicly duked it out with a number of media reporters attempting to understand a long series of editor's notes inserted into a Lorenz-penned story about content creators who covered the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial. The big question became whether or not Lorenz reached out to two YouTubers cited in her story. Lorenz arrived at the conclusion that she was, once again, the victim of a "bad faith" campaign to discredit her, her reporting, and her outlet. She blamed the initial error on a "miscommunication" between herself and her editor.

In the wake of her most recent skirmish, the New York Times reports that Lorenz was moved from the features staff to the technology team. The New York Post is also reporting that the features editor caught up in the issue may have been denied a promotion as a result of the whole incident. 

On a recent episode of Puck's "The Powers That Be Daily" podcast, journalist Jon Kelly discussed Post publisher Fred Ryan and owner Jeff Bezos asking candidates vying to become the paper's next executive editor how they would take on the challenge of handling a newsroom full of young and perpetually online journalists. Specifically, they asked candidates what they would have done in the case of the now infamous Tom Cotton op-ed, in which he argued that the U.S. military should be sent in to quell the riots that destroyed parts of American cities during the summer of 2020. The op-ed was met with such abject furor from Times staffers that it led to the departure of both the editorial page editor, as well the editorial assistant who edited Cotton's piece. 

It's unknown what response Sally Buzbee – a three-decade veteran of the Associated Press – gave the gentlemen, but she went on to secure the top job.

These last weeks, however, would appear to demonstrate that in a world of Twitter presidents, Twitter businessmen, and Twitter journalists, it is increasingly difficult to control the discourse of a staff eager to talk to the public.

Leading up to his imminent departure from his executive editorship at The New York Times, Dean Baquet warned his staff that too much time on Twitter makes for poor journalism. The warning has hardly dictated the way his staffers have behaved over the last several years, but is recognition of a problem that is not going away – though it appears to be less of an issue at the Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg. 

In the post-Trump era of online discourse, even one of the star journalists who uncovered the Watergate story a half-century ago has not been able to spare himself the humiliation of the modern era of political reporting. For all that Carl Bernstein reported right about Richard Nixon, he swung and missed multiple times on former President Donald Trump's now-discredited collusion with Russia.

In 2017, Bernstein called the probe into Trump's alleged collusion with Russia to win the 2016 election "worse than Watergate," and cheered on the Mueller probe from a seat in front of cable news cameras. Bob Woodward, for what it's worth, said he found "no evidence" of collusion after investigating the matter for two years.

It is clear that as the Post celebrates 50 years since the story that changed America, it now faces daunting challenges from a new generation of reporters eager to hear their own voice in a vitriolic world dominated by social media.

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