Silence is violence but criticism is trauma: This is the new dispensation among the journalistic elite. Consider the case of Felicia Sonmez, now a reporter for the Washington Post. Sonmez became a well-known journalist-advocate for the MeToo movement a few years ago when she decided to destroy the reputation of a fellow male journalist, Jonathan Kaiman, who was then the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She and Kaiman had engaged in what both initially described as a mutual, drunken hook-up. According to a thorough investigation by Emily Yoffe at Reason, after hearing that another woman had complained about Kaiman to his employer, Sonmez decided that she too had been victimized and wrote “a lengthy letter accusing Kaiman of sexually violating her” and asked “that this letter be publicly circulated,” with the obvious intention of destroying his reputation—which, in short order, it did.
Sonmez, meanwhile, was hired by the Washington Post, where she covered national politics. Last year, as news broke that basketball star Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, Sonmez tweeted an old story about the time Bryant had been accused of sexual assault. Her boss, Martin Baron, emailed her to say what any reasonable adult (and boss) might have: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” Sonmez was briefly placed on leave for violating her employer’s social-media policy.
That might have been the end of it, but she decided to share with the world the “trauma” the experience caused. In lengthy Twitter threads, she described details of conversations with her therapists, bouts of “vacant staring,” and the supposed “harms” the newspaper’s treatment of her had caused. After her tweets spread among media Twitter, the Post caved and rescinded its ban on Sonmez covering sexual-assault stories. She was not placated: “This is good news, but it’s unfortunate that it had to come at such a high emotional toll, and after my distress was dismissed for years. I’m taking time to rest and process,” she tweeted. The Washington Post’s union said the “decision came only after much public criticism and at the expense of Felicia’s mental health. The Post must do better.”
Sonmez is not alone. Many of her fellow female journalists at elite media institutions have learned that weaponizing their fragility, claiming trauma, and emotionally blackmailing their employers yields professional benefits.
Journalists used to understand the difference between real trauma (dodging bullets in a war zone while on assignment, for example) and manufactured trauma (reading an op-ed you disagree with from the comfort and safety of a newsroom). Today, journalists at legacy media institutions such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair regularly behave as if a difference of opinion on transgender issues or the usefulness of National Guard troops to quell riots is akin to a physical assault that literally puts them in danger (as Times staffers claimed last summer about an opinion piece written by Senator Tom Cotton).
Journalists who eagerly denounce “white fragility” in others seem happy to wield their own fragile emotional states as weapons against their employers. Those same institutions are encouraging this behavior by rewarding it. Times reporter Taylor Lorenz loudly and publicly complained after Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized her on-air. Like the obeisance demanded by Donald Trump at a cabinet meeting, Lorenz, with her tantrum, prompted sycophantic tweets from her Times colleagues offering their support and an official statement from the Times condemning Carlson for his “calculating and cruel” remarks, calling them “harassment.” Vanity Fair published a sympathetic story about the “next-level harassment” experienced by female journalists. An anonymous New York Times staffer complained that failing to defend her colleagues who are upset “ignores the emotional toll that it takes on reporters.”
Even the UN has gotten involved! On International Women’s Day, UNESCO took the time not to defend the women whose lives are daily imperiled by violence, disease, and war worldwide, but to announce a call “to end online violence against women journalists.” A (male!) UNESCO spokesman told everyone to use the hashtag #JournalistsToo to raise awareness.
These reporters’ use of phrases such as “online violence” and their invocation of “trauma” when discussing mean tweets capitalizes on the natural sympathy people feel for victims of real trauma and violence and turns it to the journalists’ own professional advantage. It’s a good trick, because it’s difficult to criticize these journalists without being oneself accused of compounding the claimed injury.
The writer Michael Tracey described the deployment of what he calls “therapeutic trauma jargon” in a recent issue of his Substack newsletter: “Obviously, this harm cannot be externally adjudicated because one’s harm must never be subject to contestation or (god forbid) falsification. So the logic goes, every person has the right to say they are harmed without ever having the legitimacy of that harm questioned, because to question the harm compounds the harm.”
This was evident in Sonmez’s case. When the Post placed her on leave, the union responded by writing, “Felicia herself is a survivor of assault who bravely came forward with her story two years ago.” It further criticized the Post for showing an “utter disregard for best practices in supporting survivors of sexual violence.” Indeed, the only evidence we have that Sonmez was assaulted is her claim that she was—a claim vigorously denied by the person she accused and that was never adjudicated by a court of law or subjected to any degree of serious scrutiny.
During one of many Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C., last summer, a mob marched down the street, stopping at restaurants along the way to harass diners sitting outside. They surrounded the diners’ tables, shouted “white silence is violence,” and insisted that the restaurant patrons raise their fists in support. Most acquiesced, particularly since the protestors were screaming in their faces.
One woman refused, however. Lauren Victor sat calmly while the protestors screamed and yelled inches from her face, accusing her of enjoying “white privilege.” Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle noted that most of the harassed diners “declined to comment afterward about the confrontation.” But Victor, a woman who was berated and threatened for refusing to raise her fist as the mob demanded, spoke with surprising equanimity about the experience. “I wasn’t actually frightened,” she said.
Unlike the fragile emotional sensibilities of Times and Post reporters, who have powerful institutions and unions to back them up when virtual mobs descend, Victor faced down a real mob and just got on with it without wallowing in victimhood.
But the rules of engagement are different for journalists than for the hoi polloi, evidently. Many journalists now believe that they should control the degree and quality of the criticism that their work receives, even as they themselves feel no compunction about dishing out rebukes. Of course, if they are calling out “white privilege,” or alleged sexual harassment, or even, as the Post did, publicly shaming a private citizen who once wore a politically incorrect Halloween costume (and who was later fired from her job after the Post ran the story), then these journalists are all too happy to join the mob’s demands for “justice.”
But when a journalist from a powerful media organization receives such criticism? Circle the wagons and demand the suppression of the speech of the offenders. It’s a wonderfully effective recipe for soft authoritarianism and groupthink; it’s a disaster for journalism.
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