Josh Barro on the “Bizarre and Petty” Happenings at the Washington Post

From Josh Barro on

Something has happened at The Washington Post over the last few days that is so bizarre and petty, it’s hard for me to explain it to people who don’t work in journalism without sounding nuts. Mary Katharine Ham of CNN explains how that is going:

In the most extreme cases, you get meltdowns like the one at the Dianne Morales campaign for mayor of New York, where staff went on strike to demand, among other things, that the campaign divert part of its budget away from campaigning into “community grocery giveaways.” But it’s especially a problem in the media, where so many employees have large social media followings they can use to put their employers on blast — and where those employers have (unwisely) cultivated a freewheeling social media culture where it’s common for reporters to comment on all sorts of matters unrelated to their coverage.

One instance of that unwise culture is what started this whole mess: Politics reporter Dave Weigel retweeting a tasteless joke about women.

I’m less sympathetic to Dave on this point than some other critics of the Post’s recent actions. This joke isn’t funny, and I get why it offends people. It also doesn’t serve a professional purpose. Not only should he not have retweeted this, he (like so many reporters at the Post) should tweet less in general, and Post management has a relevant interest in disciplining him for this tweet, even though the monthlong suspension they awarded him is excessive.

And other Post employees would have had plausible reason to raise objection to the tweet — to him directly, to his editor, or to human resources. But instead of using those channels, Post reporter Felicia Sonmez — who says she has “long considered Dave a good friend” — has gone on a days-long public diatribe about the retweet on Twitter, drawing massive attention to it and asking why it is “allowed” at the paper. I am literally talking about hundreds of tweets and retweets on the subject.

Weigel pulled down the retweet and apologized, but she has continued to pile on, even after the paper suspended him without pay for a month. It’s been a one-woman campaign — threads of dozens of tweets attacking Post management; doing name searches for herself and tweeting screenshots of the criticism she’s received for attacking her colleague in public; retweeting praise from random Twitter accounts along the lines of, “Credit to Felicia Sonmez for continuing to cover the story of the continued abuse she’s receiving over the Dave Weigel tweet. She has a lot more guts than I have.”

She’s been especially mad at another colleague, features writer Jose A. Del Real, for having the temerity to describe her behavior as “clout chasing” and “toxic” and urge her to stop attacking colleagues so publicly. She wants to know why Post management isn’t doing something about him and his tweets.

I hate that I’ve written so many paragraphs about this. I hate that I know so much about this dispute. It’s so high school, and it ought not to be any of our business. These are all internal HR matters. But Sonmez is explicit: She wages these fights in public because management is more responsive to that than when employees complain privately. By giving her “good friend” Weigel such a long suspension and doing nothing to her, management is only encouraging her and other Post employees to put their colleagues on blast more, which she has indeed been doing.

Airing internal workplace disputes in public like this is not okay, even when you are right on the merits. My statement isn’t just obvious, it’s how almost all organizations work. If you think your coworker sucks, you don’t tweet about it. That’s unprofessional. If you disagree with management’s personnel decisions, you don’t decry them to the public. That’s insubordinate. Organizations full of people who are publicly at each other’s throats can’t be effective. Your workplace is not Fleetwood Mac.

Del Real is right that Sonmez’s behavior is clout chasing and toxic, but it’s not his job to say so — that job falls to Post management. And just because Post management is weak and incompetent does not mean he gets to substitute his judgment for theirs, especially in a public forum. Similarly, though it displeases Sonmez that management does not always do anything about other reporters’ tweets she finds “problematic,” that doesn’t mean she gets to appeal the decision to the Twitter mob. You don’t run the paper; you don’t always get what you want.

The staff apparently needs a sharp reminder that you do not air your disputes with colleagues in public. You’re supposed to be a team: You keep disagreements internal, and if you find the management or strategy or editorial direction of the organization unacceptable, you leave and work somewhere else. But employees have seen for years at the Post (and The New York Times) that following those practices is optional, so it’s going to take a shock to the system — one that will involve more employee discipline and the departure of employees for whom the chaos culture is an important value. They need to know that if they want to be toxic, they have to go do it at someone else’s newspaper.

Officially, it’s the position of The Washington Post that this sort of behavior is not allowed. Executive Editor Sally Buzbee sent a memo to that effect Tuesday afternoon, declaring “we do not tolerate colleagues attacking colleagues face to face or online.” But of course, they have been tolerating it, which is why we got to this point. Sonmez and Del Real are both afoul of the policy right now, but so are various other Postemployees, like Nina Zafar, who accused Del Real of “fragile feelings and lack of empathy”; or Taylor Lorenz, who last month accused Weigel of “spreading misinformation about COVID and Long COVID”; or even Jacqueline Alemany, who in March said Lorenz’s comments to a reporter about her “brand” were “cringey.”Alemany was 100% right, but that does not make her in compliance with the policy.

If I ran the Post, I would hand out punishments, including suspensions, like candy, until all this nonsense stopped.

A crackdown on this sort of behavior would not be anti-worker. It would be pro-worker, because it is miserable to work in the sort of organization where it’s hard to focus on your work because you have to worry about who’s going to attack you in public, undermine your decisions, or intervene from some other random business group to attack the strategy it’s your job to implement. Functional organizations that are capable of setting and achieving goals are good for the workers within them; workers benefit from management insisting that other workers be good teammates.

We have seen in the tech industry what it looks like for a company to rein in a culture of freewheeling, chaotic fighting. Google stopped telling employees to bring their whole selves to work, started telling them not to have bitter fights about politics, and punished those who wouldn’t follow the new rules. “Activist” employees got frustrated and left the company — good.1 Basecamp, a much smaller firm, drew a lot of attention for its declaration that political fights wouldn’t be allowed anymore, leading to much garment-rending and the departure of left-wing employees — something that was for the best, as it was an opportunity for workers and their organizations to be better aligned on values.

There are models for newsrooms where employees behave in a normal and professional manner on social media, in Slack, and in their general communications with and about each other. You don’t see, for instance, Wall Street Journal or Axiosreporters criticizing each other in public or decrying management for failing to run the outlet in exactly the way they would like. You also don’t see them sharing tasteless jokes. There are expectations of professionalism set from the top, and they’re followed. Axios CEO Jim VandeHei explained on a recent episode of the Very Serious podcast how they keep newsroom drama to a minimum — it starts with a clear expectation that reporters won’t “pop off” about their opinions and won’t badmouth each other. And the WSJ is a union shop, so I don’t want to hear about how it’s impossible to develop a culture where reporters stick to their knitting if they are unionized.

It’s ultimately on Post management that they never set the expectations they ended up wanting to enforce. But it’s not too late to start.

I would finally note one thing: Organizations primarily staffed by conservatives have various problems, but they don’t have this one. And this phenomenon extends well outside the media, to liberal-staffed nonprofit and political organizations, where leaders are terrified of their employees’ potential outbursts and are therefore letting them run roughshod over strategic goals — and especially over prudent decision-making that might help win elections but do not meet every checkbox of the left-wing keyboard warriors who could cause so much trouble inside and outside the organization.

Fixing this sort of culture isn’t just necessary for making these organizations less miserable places; it’s necessary for building an effective political movement. That’s why, if you’re a liberal, you should care about toxic, anarchic work cultures, even if you don’t personally work at an organization with one.

Joshua A. Barro is an American journalist and creator of the newsletter and podcast Very Serious. He previously hosted the weekly radio program Left, Right, & Center based at KCRW Los Angeles and served as a senior editor and columnist at Business Insider.

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