A Terrible Episode With Worse Timing: The Newsroom Tackles Campus Rape


The last three seasons of The Newsroom have been both fascinating and infuriating: a depiction of nuts-and-bolts newsjournalism so fantastical that it couches its sanctimonious shaming in righteous idealism. It is show creator Aaron Sorkin’s Herman’s Head-style universe, where ethics are shouted down unto the people via righteous men and all the women are shrewy, weak-willed, maniacal or all three. But Sunday night’s episode, the penultimate in the series, took it further and worse than any before it.

In a protracted subplot that seemed to serve no other purpose than to show yet again how much disdain Aaron Sorkin has for A. the internet and B. women, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) tracks down Mary (Sarah Sutherland), a Princeton student who has been raped by two men at a fraternity party and, in response to inaction by university authorities, has created an anonymous website aimed at outing them and other campus rapists. Sound familiar? (The prescience of the topic airing the weekend after the Rolling Stone/UVA disaster furthers the theory that Aaron Sorkin may in fact be a practitioner of the dark arts.)

In the scene, Don visits Mary in her dorm room, ostensibly doing a pre-interview for a segment in which the higher-ups actually want Mary and the accused to appear alongside each other in a debate. Don is clearly uncomfortable in a space alone with a woman who’s accused somebody of rape. “You want witnesses in case I say you forced yourself on me,” Mary observes, and the two begin verbally sparring in the quick-dialogued way that’s defined Sorkin’s shows. She tells Don, repeatedly, “I was raped,” and explains that she called “city police, campus police, and the DA’s office,” but that “nobody pursued it.” Don is skeptical from the beginning, calling her experience (date rape) a “kind of rape,” before mansplaining to her the minutiae of how he uncovered her identity (spoiler: journalistic fact-finding, the kind Sorkin seems to assume we do not do on the internet). Mary, in the middle of telling Don about her rape, says jauntily, “That’s a lot of detective work! That’s old school!” Oh, please.

Mary tells him that she knows that there won’t be a trial, that she’ll be a statistic, one of “700,000 rape kits that go untested.” Don decides that’s a good point to bring up how Sloan Sabbith, his girlfriend, had nude photos leaked on the internet. The point of this is not to show how Don, the character, is a self-centered dick, but to make a parallel between Sloan’s ex-boyfriend publishing her nudes with Mary’s website outing her rapist. What Sorkin, via Don, seems to be getting at is that he believes there is a grey area in which even victimized women, seeking justice in the only way they can when they are institutionally denied it, are culpable for the actions of their rapists. That if the authorities do nothing, then neither should she, because theoretically some vengeful woman might make up a rape story in order to ruin some innocent man’s career. “No one wants to hear about your rape.”

Clearly, this was a terrible episode with even worse timing.

As the scene plays out, Don actually encourages Mary not to come on the show, not because it will be re-traumatizing to her, or because putting a victim in a “debate” with her rapist on live television is a really fucking terrible idea and adherent to the sensationalism Sorkin so loathes, but because she will be “convening [her] own trial in front of a live television audience…. The law can acquit, but the internet never does. The internet is used for vigilanteism every day.”

He’s not talking about the people who might attack her on the internet for speaking up, but about what she might be doing to her rapist if it turns out she is lying.

Mary says to Don, “The law is plainly failing rape victims. That must be obvious to you.”

“It is, but in fairness, the law wasn’t built to serve victims… I’ve heard two competing stories, one from a very credible woman who has no reason to lie, the other from a guy I judge to be a little sketchy who has every reason to lie, and I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy… I believe I’m morally obligated. I’m the guy who goes around saying OJ’s not guilty because a jury said so.”

The most believable aspect of this scenario is that a pompous male journalist would choose to victim-blame a woman who was raped and attempt to justify it with the weak defense that it’s about journalistic ethics. (Sound familiar?) The least believable aspect of this scenario is that this woman would entertain Don’s bullshit beyond the first denial. Or perhaps she would, but the way the dialogue played out was perfectly shoehorned into Sorkin’s apparent notion that laws on the books are more credible than witness testimony, without accounting for how those rules are distorted and applied selectively in an unjust society.

Many critics have long been disdainful of Sorkin’s treatment of women in the show, particularly with Season 2’s absurd PTSD storyline, in which Maggie (Allison Pill) can’t handle reporting in the field (presumably because wartime reporting is for Real Reporters, like Men) and manifests her mental breakdown via a crazytime haircut, not dissimilar to Britney Spears. But the hunch viewers might have that The Newsroom is Sorkin’s psyche manifest was confirmed in a series of tweets by Alena Smith, a writer on the show, who said Sorkin belittled her and kicked her out of the writer’s room when she questioned the wisdom of the rape storyline.


Following her tweets, Smith told BuzzFeed, “I love Aaron, and I learned an incredible amount working for him, but I felt this storyline was unacceptable.”

One of this season’s main plotlines has been Sorkin’s perceived tension between rigorous, old-school reportage—an institutional, dignified fantasy of Journalism—and the way the internet not only breaks down those tenets and ethics but desecrates them. BJ Novak plays the season’s clearest antagonist, a bratty tech billionaire who wants to buy ACN and parcel it out piecemeal to social mediaites for Maximum Pageviews, but a close second enemy is Sorkin’s shadowy, devilish idea of “Citizen Journalists”—normal people on the ground who do some kind of reporting via social media but who haven’t been to J-School *gasp*. Of course, Sorkin’s concept of “Citizen Journalism” is about eight years old—approximately the last time I heard anyone seriously use that term—and not at all in tune with how Real Journalists and on-the-ground Tweeters have developed a kind of symbiotic relationship. (For instance: if the witnesses to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson had not tweeted and gone viral, would the rest of the world known about it, as quickly? The incident became a national news story in large part due to social media.)

Sorkin, as an extension of his disdain for internet reportage, also seems to have a particular gripe with Gawker in and of itself, though the Gawker dot com he portrays on The Newsroom looks, again, more like the eight years ago version. This episode contained a plotline in which a sniveling, pudgy “senior web editor” at ACN develops an app in which regular people (nay, “citizen journalists) can log celebrity sightings in real time. It’s similar, as Olivia Munn’s Sloan Sabbith notes, to Gawker Stalker, a now-discontinued feature on Gawker dot com; Sabbith is appalled at the idea, and devises a plan in which she interviews said web editor about the app, ostensibly for website promo but really so she can grill him about the ethics of allowing potential gun-toting nutcases to know exactly where their celebrity fixation may be at any given moment.

I haven’t yet decided if it’s Sorkin’s paucity of imagination, or the intensity and myopia of his particular grindstone that parts of Sloan’s interview with the web editor are taken verbatim from this real-life Jimmy Kimmel clash with Gawker’s then-editor Emily Gould. It’s from 2007, so clearly he’s been sitting on this for awhile.

But then again, The Newsroom has proven itself to be a proscenium in which Sorkin plays out his grudges—recall the New York Post writer who once dated him, only to find herself as a version of a character in Season 2 (a gossip writer at a publication called TMI, of all things). And no doubt her first-person writing inspired some of this season’s Hallie/Jim arc, in which Jim basically dumps Hallie because she begins writing for the internet and in first person to boot, crime of all crimes.

At the end of Sunday’s episode, Charlie Skinner, The Newsroom‘s moral dad played by Sam Waterston, has a heart attack and croaks, hitting his head on a desk near a computer on the way down—a symbolic sledgehammer that was meant to parallel the way the “internet” is “killing” “real journalism,” or something. Rather than a moment of gravity, though, Charlie’s dramatic topple was actually hilarious, so over-the-top obvious it inched into B-Movie territory. At this rate—and, again, with Sorkin’s apparent demonic psychic ability—the series will close with Will McEvoy indignantly resigning from ACN (/TNR) in a defiantly performative act of Twitter. It will be the first and last time McEvoy will ever use such filthy, amoral, unethical social media, destroyer of all that is all that is good and holy, fade to black. Or maybe he’ll just Tweet “NO SIR” and blow his own brains out on the steps of the Capitol. No matter what happens, it’s clear that history won’t be kind to this show—but that’s likely what’s been bugging Sorkin the whole time.

Image via HBO.

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