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The Washington Post’s decision to fire reporter Felicia Sonmez bears striking similarities to the newspaper’s handling of the Watergate scandal, encapsulating pertinent ideas about challenging institutions, according to a founding editor of Politico.
John F. Harris, who originally started at The Post two days after finishing college, began the column by asserting that the “defining fact of American public life” over the past 30 years has been the erosion of power and “self-confidence” in “traditional institutions.”
Harris considers this a bad thing, painting a picture of college campuses where the administration “fear running afoul” of students and faculty over issues regarding sex, race, and economics. He also claimed that most Republican leaders in Congress consider former President Donald Trump a “menace,” but fear speaking out.
This “political phenomenon,” is thus carried over into journalism, where Harris recounts a “barrage of episodes” where senior editors relinquish in fear over the prospect of backlash from staffers and political activists. Harris said that in these cases, institutions must seize back control.
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“A half-century ago, leaders of the Post screwed up their courage—amid ample second-guessing and potential recriminations—to confront then-President Richard Nixon with coverage that helped facilitate the events that led to his resignation,” Harris wrote. “Last week, leaders of the Post screwed up their courage—amid ample second-guessing and potential recriminations—to fire one of its own reporters, Felicia Sonmez…”
Harris surmised that Sonmez was only fired after it became obvious that she had lost the good faith of a majority of her colleagues, all while losing her “sharp personal edge” in social media.
The Post terminated Sonmez on June 9 after she waged war against the paper and her colleagues with tweetstorms for nearly an entire week.
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The drama initially stemmed from a spat between Sonmez and fellow reporter Dave Weigel, whom she had publicly shamed for retweeting a joke that mocked women; Weigel was ultimately suspended for one month without pay.
“The balance of fear had shifted. This left her and colleagues on the leadership team free to act on their belief that Sonmez, in pursuing her individual interest in saying what she thought when she wanted, was not meeting her institutional responsibilities to protect the Post’s internal culture and external responsibilities,” Harris added.
But, these activists and institutional dissenters are not truly bad. Harris noted that he feels a “mild” amount of sympathy for the newsroom execs and institutional powerhouses. He described activists and “woke” colleagues as those who truly want “desirable objectives.” Additionally, the “woke” crowd do not have contempt for institutions, but are rather “committed” to making them the best versions of themselves.
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No matter, both the Watergate scandal and Sonmez’s firing illuminate a certain observation, according to Harris, in that only “strong institutions” have “remote chance” of corralling the disrupters to their side, and bringing true lawbreakers “to heel.” Harris only mentions two examples of whom those lawbreakers may be: Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.
Referencing a 50th anniversary reflection on Watergate by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Harris reiterates their position that Trump had violated public trust in a way “more shocking” than Nixon, and offered a call to institutions to buck the former president.
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“There is no better time than the present for leaders of those institutions to transcend fear and regain confidence,” Harris concluded.
Fox News’ Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.