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‘The Newsroom’s Ill-Timed Campus Rape Episode Is Its Worst Ever

'The Newsroom's Ill-Timed Campus Rape Episode Is Its Worst Ever

The Newsroom” has long since shed all but its devoted core of fans and a few long-suffering recappers: At this point, with one episode left in its final season, you’re either a fan or you’re not, and there’s not much common ground between them. But the news that last night’s penultimate episode, “Oh Shenandoah,” addressed the subject of rape on college campuses, thus dovetailing with the still-unfolding controversy over Rolling Stone’s story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia, drew some of the departed back to the fold: If nothing else, it seemed like an excellent time to start hate-watching again.

What transpired was a Sorkin hater’s worst nightmare/greatest dream, an episode steeped in Sorkin’s fear of powerful women, his reflexive hatred of all things Internet, and his penchant for condescending sermonizing, all of which collided in a magnificent shitshow of rapesplanation. The argument Sorkin advances via Don, who drops in unannounced on a rape victim who’s started a website allowing women to anonymously name their attackers, is so nonsensical it’s difficult to replicate, but it goes something like this: I, Don Keefer, would like to believe you, woman who says she was raped. But because there are two sides to every story, and the guys who you say raped you say you were literally asking for it, I am morally obligated to believe them instead of you — not just as a journalist, but as a person. I know this isn’t fair, as my sad puppy-dog eyes will tell you, but them’s the breaks.

As several critics noted, the dialogue between Don (Thomas Sadoski) and Mary (Sarah Sutherland, who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ daughter on “Veep”) has the vague outline of a genuine debate: The issue of the Internet’s power to destroy reputations is certainly a real concern, even if equating the possibility that a woman might use Mary’s site to unfairly malign an innocent man with Sloan Sabbith’s ex- posting nude pictures of her on a “revenge porn” site is beyond grotesque. (The latter happens all the time; the former, almost never.) But by linking Mary’s site with a separate plot in which Sloan grills the creator of a Gawker Stalker-esque app on the air, Sorkin none-too-subtly, and none-too-honestly, equates the harassment of wealthy celebrities with attempts to rein in rape culture. You think someone would have pointed out this was not only offensive but insane, and in fact, one of “The Newsroom’s” female writers did, she was kicked out of the room. Quiet, ladies: Aaron Sorkin is talking.

Not surprisingly, critics let Sorkin have it with both barrels, with several calling “Oh Shenandoah” the series’ worst episode ever, not only for the rape subplot but for the final twist, which effectively insinuates that the Internet killed Charlie Skinner. The timing wasn’t Sorkin’s doing, but given the show’s habit of second-guessing the media’s judgements two years after the fact, there’s a certain justice in the way current events turned the tables on Sorkin’s pat and outdated views.

Ariane Lange, BuzzFeed

“The Newsroom,” now in its third and final season, has been criticized during its short life for its female characters: They are often silly and incompetent. But this particular morality tale — Don and Mary’s conversation is long, and the scene is woven throughout the episode — is “The Newsroom’s” worst instance of woman-hating. And it is a terrible coincidence that the episode is airing the Sunday after Rolling Stone wrote that its reporter had “misplaced” trust (phrasing the magazine later changed) in Jackie, the subject of a long article about her alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia.

James Poniewozik, Time

Its arguments about whom to “believe” in the case of rape accusations were terrible. Its arguments about reporting said accusations were terrible. Its reliance on preachy strawman arguments was terrible. Its cranky obsession with the evils of the Internet was terrible. And it added up—in a final season that began with the promise of the series becoming better and subtler in the end—as a terrible episode even by the standards of the series’ earlier, most terrible ones…. The most baldly offensive thing in “Oh Shenandoah” was watching Don mansplain rape to a woman. But to focus only on that would be to diminish the sheer, monumental, top-to-bottom -splaininess of this episode. Will McAvoy is so good a mansplainer he can even mansplain to another man. Then Sloan Sloansplained privacy and the rights of celebrities. And Charlie, in the climax of “The Newsroom’s” worst episode ever, finally and unanswerably deathsplained the demise of journalism.

David Sims, The Atlantic

This is “The Newsroom” at its worst, through and through. I have no problems with a show that explores the heroism of journalism, perhaps while balancing that against ethical quandaries. But this is not a heroic moment, and it’s an embarrassment to watch it treated as one. After Don softly informs Mary of all the flaws in her arguments and nods sadly at each one of her rebuttals, he goes home having learned nothing but presuming himself all the wiser. That’s the episode in a nutshell. We haven’t learned a single thing, but Aaron Sorkin sure thinks we have.

Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker

Look, “The Newsroom” was never going to be my favorite series, but I didn’t expect it to make my head blow off, all over again, after all these years of peaceful hate-watching. Don’s right, of course: a public debate about an alleged rape would be a nightmare. Anonymous accusations are risky and sometimes women lie about rape (Hell, people lie about everything). But on a show dedicated to fantasy journalism, Sorkin’s stand-in doesn’t lobby for more incisive coverage of sexual violence or for a responsible way to tell graphic stories without getting off on the horrible details or for innovative investigations that could pressure a corrupt, ass-covering system to do better. Instead, he argues that the idealistic thing to do is not to believe her story. Don’s fighting for no coverage: he’s so identified with falsely accused men and so focussed on his sorrowful, courtly discomfort that, mainly, he just wants the issue to go away. And Don is our hero! Sloan Sabbith, you in trouble, girl.

Tara Ariano, Previously.tv

What’s infuriating is that, like my Twitter friend said, this has the form of an ethical argument. But even though Don’s side of the argument is valid only 2% of the time, his character gets to come across as reasonable and measured, whereas Mary, as the crime victim, is presented as the one who’s lashing out emotionally. She’s crying. She’s not being dispassionate — that’s a privilege only Don has, in this situation.

Libby Hill, A.V. Club

In a country with hundreds of thousands untested rape kits languishing in evidence lockers, there is no true justice for victims of sexual assault. Even Aaron Sorkin knows that. He said as much in this week’s episode of “The Newsroom.” He’s sorry that rape victims aren’t given their due by police or campus authorities or district attorneys. But since they can’t, he’d really prefer they shut up about it.

At least that’s the conclusion one draws from an episode that features Don meeting with a rape victim (rape accuser) Mary and telling her that her grassroots website, built so that victims of both sexual assault and institutional neglect can trade information and construct a safer world for each other, was really no different from pornography fueled entirely by jealous exes seeking revenge. And that, because there was the potential for someone to misuse said website, she shouldn’t encourage such behavior. You can’t get justice from the courts. You shouldn’t get justice from the court of public opinion. As such, please stop talking.

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