A lawsuit against The Washington Post reignites the debate over objectivity

Walter Lippmann in 1905

The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.

Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.

Darcy and New York Times reporter Katie Robertson report that Baron has declined to comment on the case.

I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.

Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”

Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”

What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.

There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.

In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.

Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.