In a conversation between a series regular and a potential source, the episode titled “Oh Shenandoah” featured an extended storyline on “campus rape” — an issue never more important to discuss than now. Between the poorly-reported Rolling Stone story on gang rape at the University of Virginia unfolding as we speak and the dated-but-haunting Princeton survey discovered in 2013, the discussion of campus rape, as well as reporting on campus rape, is a vital one for our country to examine. So, as many have already remarked, last night’s episode of “The Newsroom” couldn’t come at a better time—had people found the discussion valuable. Since they so clearly have not, it’s quickly become one of the most glaring blemishes on Sorkin’s resume to date.
But should it? This episode’s questionable content didn’t strike me as Sorkin speaking through Don, as many critics have ascribed to the man. I’m actively on the lookout for Sorkin speaking via proxy as one of my weekly episode headers is “Meta Sorkin-ism of the Week,” but the episode seemed relatively free from Sorkin’s admittedly overbearing insistence on pushing his own agenda over what’s necessary for the diegetic story (even for Season 3, which has had at least two more egregious offenders). I saw only Don having a discussion with Mary—not “the Princeton girl” as so many critics have dismissively labeled her—but did I see the whole picture, only what I wanted to see, or should we be having a different discussion entirely?
When Mary’s story is first introduced in “Oh Shenandoah,” Don Keefer—for the uninitiated, the EP of News Night’s follow-up program—is asking the president of ACN News, Charlie Skinner, for help on the story he’s been assigned. Charlie, upset over his employees’ lack of enthusiasm for the recent changes made to the company, irately demands why he’s complaining about a story that’s both “perfectly legitimate” and “important.” Don agrees—he says so before asking Charlie to explain why Mary must meet with the man she says raped her in the ACN studio on the air live, in front of millions. Charlie makes it clear that if he doesn’t pursue the story the way he’s been instructed, he will be fired, so he tracks down the accuser and sits down with her.
After telling Mary how he found her, Don says he’s really there to beg her not to do the interview. After a quick break (featuring the unbearable saga of Jim and Maggie), we return to hear Don compare Mary’s website—a site designed to warn women, or anyone really, against rapists—to a site opposite in intent. During Season 2 of “The Newsroom,” nude photos of Don’s girlfriend and News Night financial correspondent Sloan Sabbath were leaked by an angry ex-boyfriend. Don asks Mary if she’s concerned her website will be used for similar revenge, possibly ruining innocent lives, to which she aptly counters with the importance of speaking out about rape. Don says he knows, and we again take a break, as Mary clearly has the upper hand in the debate and Don is still trying to figure out how to keep her off his show.
When we return, Mary asks Don if he believes her story. He immediately responds in the affirmative, but says he’s morally obligated to believe the accused until he’s proven guilty. Then Don lays out why his TV show isn’t a courtroom, while Mary continues to argue for speaking out. Every time Don makes a point, Mary has a counter. Finally, Don lays out the case he’s established to this point. Her site will ruin someone’s life. Her appearance on television will not provide her “the justice you’re looking for.” Mary doesn’t care. She wants to be heard because the world has otherwise refused to hear her. They part ways, and Don later tells his boss he couldn’t find Mary in order to avoid running the story.
While it’s easy to cry foul, pull quotes out of context and claim that Sorkin was speaking through Don—admittedly, the only credited writer on last night’s episode—it’s just as easy to watch the episode without assigning Don’s words to any voice other than the character, or to argue Sorkin was actually speaking through Mary. After all, in the context of the wider story—a story some hate-watching, bandwagon-jumping critics may not have seen in its entirety—Don isn’t trying to ignore the issue of rape. He’s not trying to hide it or dismiss it or keep Mary from speaking out. He’s trying to keep her from doing so on his network.
ACN has hit rock bottom. After a last-minute deal to avoid losing the news network entirely, Will McAvoy’s station has been bought by an news-ignorant, money-hungry power player who’s steering it in the wrong direction. McAvoy himself is in jail after refusing to give up a source, leaving Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston, a hero of Sorkin’s) alone to battle the new boss. He doesn’t have it in him anymore. He said as much in the previous episode. So it’s no surprise that while Will was gone for 53 days, the network has taken a moral nosedive, resulting in “news” no one in the newsroom is proud to share.
Don knows if Mary goes on his air, then she’ll be exploited in the worst possible way, because that’s what his network is doing right now. This is the argument set up by the show within the context of its story. Moreover, if you can only see the episode as Sorkin sermonizing through younger, better-looking versions of himself, than Don’s “moral” choice to believe the accused rapist over the accuser actually works in favor of the show’s creator.
The Subjective Viewer
Sorkin has always based his stance on “The Newsroom” as one grounded in the law. The character of Will McAvoy is a former prosecutor with a law degree from a prestigious university, and he likes to remind of us this fact repeatedly. The rest of the characters often speak much like Will does, or their voices are used to provide Will the opportunity to speak in legalese. So it came as no surprise that Mary made sure to explain “this isn’t a courtroom” when Don told her he was “obligated” to believe “the sketchy guy.” His belief in the law is grounded so firmly that even his objective “moral” stance is one based on constitutional rights. He believes someone is innocent until proven guilty, an admirable quality bolstered by his obvious trust in Mary’s version of the story and an admission that he’s the guy with his “head up his ass” claiming OJ Simpson is innocent because the courts said so. He knows she was raped, but as a student of the law, he could not say as much without abandoning his principles.
Moreover, it would have been just as easy to watch last night’s episode and argue Sorkin was speaking through the female voice. Sorkin, though often accused of misogyny throughout his career (accusations that feel all the more pertinent with the apparent dismissal of a female staffer), actually has a young daughter. He even brought her to the Season 3 premiere of “The Newsroom,” making it entirely plausible he’s looking for issues to discuss from her perspective. To that end, Mary “wins” her debate with Don even if he remains unconvinced of “how to do the story.” Sorkin still told the story, and her voice was heard by millions.
Subjectivity is constantly present when analyzing art, especially popular art showcased on a mass stage and thus taking on added obligations. Claiming to know whose side Aaron Sorkin would take in last night’s episode seems more dangerous than pleading ignorance. Yet Sorkin also has to take responsibility for his audience’s interpretation. Fans I’ve spoken with have loved last night’s episode, while others were just as upset as some of the critics. It’s not necessarily the writer’s fault when viewers misread his work, but he must still accept responsibility for reaction touching on opposite ends of the spectrum. It seems safest, more reasonable even, to say Sorkin wants the discussion to continue more than the last word in it. But I won’t speak for the showrunner. It’s best to let the show speak for itself, no matter the interpretation. Otherwise, the discussion ends altogether, and no one wants that.