'The Newsroom' generates controversy after rape story line

A storyline about a campus rape in the penultimate episode of 'The Newsroom' is generating controversy

Aside from widespread viewer ambivalence over the quality of Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama "The Newsroom" and an unexpected Emmy for star Jeff Daniels, the series has had a mostly uneventful three-season run. And with just one episode to go -- the series finale airs Sunday -- it might have stayed that way. But on Sunday's episode, "Oh Shenandoah," an unexpectedly timely rape story line is giving the series an 11th-hour controversy.

The story line in question concerned the character Don, played by Thomas Sadoski, visiting a college student, played by Sarah Sutherland, for a pre-interview about her rape and inaction by campus authorities, which has resulted in her creating a website designed to out rapists anonymously.

Though "The Newsroom" generally tackles real news events far after the fact (the current season takes place in the spring of 2013), this story was made timely by the recent Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia for which the magazine published an apology on Friday for several problems with the story.

In the episode, Don discusses the rape and the fallout afterward with the woman, but ultimately discourages her from appearing on his news show to debate her attacker.

Many viewers took issue with Sorkin's stance on the issue, saying that as a man, he was victim-blaming the woman, and showing more concern for the detrimental effects an accusation would have on a man if she was found not to be telling the truth.

At one point, the student says to Don, "The law is plainly failing rape victims. That must be obvious to you."

To which he responds, "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 O.J.'s not guilty because a jury said so."

The feeling among many is that Sorkin uses the various journalist characters on the show to argue his own viewpoints against weak counter-arguments, personified in unlikeable tea party members and gossip bloggers whose counter-arguments are weakly constructed against Sorkin's preferred view.

So in the case of the college rape case, many saw the lack of understanding of the woman's position just another sign of Sorkin's lack of understanding of the female point of view, a criticism leveled at him a lot regarding "The Newsroom."

In the New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum called it a "crazy-making" episode.

Reacting to her pan, "Newsroom" writer Alena Smith spoke out on Twitter, revealing a bit of the backstory to that episode.

"You can't criticize Sorkin without turning into one of his characters," she wrote in a series of tweets, echoing the closing on Nussbaum's review. "So when I tried to argue, in the writers' room, that we maybe skip the storyline where a rape victim gets interrogated by a random man... I ended up getting kicked out of the room and screamed at just like Hallie would have for a "bad tweet." I found the experience quite boring. I wanted to fight with Aaron about the NSA, not gender. I didn't like getting cast in his outdated role."

In a statement through his publicist, Sorkin responded, "Let me take a moment to say that I understand that the story in last night's episode (305--"Oh Shenandoah") about Don trying to persuade a Princeton student named Mary (Sarah Sutherland) not to engage in a "Crossfire"-style segment on his show has catalyzed some passionate debate this morning. I'm happy to hear it. 

"It catalyzed some passionate debate in our writers room too. Arguments in the writers room at 'The Newsroom' are not only common, they're encouraged. The staff's ability to argue with each other and with me about issues ranging from journalistic freedom vs. national security to whether or not Kat Dennings should come back and save the company is one of their greatest assets and something I look for during the hiring process. Ultimately I have to go into a room by myself and write the show but before I do I spend many days listening to, participating in and stoking these arguments. As with any show, I have to create a safe environment where people can disagree and no one fears having their voice drowned out or, worse, mocked. 

"Alena Smith, a staff writer who joined the show for the third season, had strong objections to the Princeton story and made those objections known to me and to the room. I heard Alena's objections and there was some healthy back and forth. After a while I needed to move on (there's a clock ticking) but Alena wasn't ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn't let me do that so I excused her from the room. 

"The next day I wrote a new draft of the Princeton scenes -- the draft you saw performed last night. Alena gave the new pages her enthusiastic support. So I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story. But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. That's what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in, the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I'm saddened that she's broken that trust."

Follow me on Twitter: @patrickkevinday

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

1:43 p.m.: This post has been updated with Sorkin's statement.

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