Rape, The Internet, And How ‘The Newsroom’ Failed

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In The Newsroom’s most recent episode, “Oh Shenandoah,” Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) struggled with an assignment to report on campus rape.

A Princeton student, Mary, claims she was gang raped at a party after passing out from drinking and drug use. She called the police, alerted campus authorities and completed a rape kit, all of which led nowhere. Charges were never filed, the boys walked away, and Mary decided to create a website where she, and others, could publicly detail their rape and name any alleged rapists anonymously. Pruit (BJ Novak) wants Don to go to Princeton, and convince Mary to appear on ACN and face one of her alleged rapists, Jeff, in a live, on-air debate. A public trial created in the hopes of manufacturing higher ratings. Don is against this idea from the start, but he tracks Mary down after Charlie threatens his job. When he gets to Mary’s dorm room, he listens to her horrifying account, and then begs her not to do the story.

When this storyline was first introduced, I thought Aaron Sorkin must be some kind of prophet – what with the recent Rolling Stone UVA rape story debacle (the magazine recently blamed the alleged victim in their apology for their irresponsible reporting – classy), and the enormous number of Title IX complains made against campuses across the country for their mishandling of rape cases on campus. At first, I thought Don was against the story because forcing a (alleged) victim to confront her (alleged) rapist on live television is an incredibly cruel and irresponsible thing to do. (Not to mention the fact that it would completely backfire on Pruit and earn the network a heap of negative press from the millennials it’s trying to court.) So I was surprised to find that Don’s main problem with putting Mary’s story on air was his fear of false rape allegations and justice without due process.

Don’s moral dilemma of whether or not to believe a person is guilty solely based on a court’s decision (or lack of action by a body of law enforcement) is, of course, an incredibly timely one. And not only because of the increased public interest in how college campuses and police deal with alleged cases of rape. The entire country is currently protesting two Grand Jury decisions regarding the killing of unarmed black men by police. Some might say that the court system worked, and the police were not indicted by the grand jury, meaning they are innocent under the law, but people are rising up to protest that very notion, to protest the fantasy that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. So, where does that leave us? Are we supposed to maintain their innocence on moral standards, or do we question the law?

What is striking about The Newsroom’s exploration of this moral dilemma is that it doesn’t even acknowledge the option of questioning the law. At least, Don doesn’t appear to. He doesn’t seem to be willing to even consider bringing Mary on the show to discuss how the law failed her. Moreover, he takes that right away from her when he tells Charlie he couldn’t find her. Mary wanted to tell her story, but Don decided that she was wrong. In effect, a male journalist censured a female rape victim (effectively doing the exact same thing the justice system did by denying her a trial). Yay journalism?

Don’s lack of idealistic justice in this instance is shocking for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Sorkin’s shows usually overflows with idealism. It’s not a Sorkin show without some verbose monologues on how modern society and corruption have wronged the American people. Frankly, I thought Sorkin might give women whose rape cases are dismissed and ignored in our imperfect world a fictional victory. Of course, the way we talk about rape should be changed, Don would tell Mary. Of course, I believe you, and I would like to hear how you think the system should change. Of course, I will help you continue to create a space for victims of assault to come forward and tell their stories.

Or, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wrote:

“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 is fighting for no coverage: he’s so identified with falsely accused men and so focused on his sorrowful, courtly discomfort that, mainly, he just wants the issue to go away.”

It must be said that Don brought up some legitimate points. False allegations do occur, though very rarely, and publicly accusing men of rape on the internet does not seem like the greatest course of action. However, The Newsroom made these points with no real regard for the other side, for victim’s rights or the rights of women in general. Mary was forced to tell her story on the internet after the law failed to listen to her. Moreover, The Newsroom failed to mention the problematic ways colleges have been handling rape cases reported to campus police or the administration. It’s unclear, for example, what the Dean’s response to Mary was. Did the men she accused go in front of some kind of campus jury or disciplinary board? Could that proceeding be considered ‘fair’? (This might also lead one to wonder what Don would say if Mary had told him that the boys had been found guilty of sexual assault by the school, but were not expelled.)

Reactions to the episode have not been great, with many seeing the storyline as another disappointing example of rape culture. Still more are calling the storyline just another example of Sorkin’s problematic portrayal of women on The Newsroom (a critique that has plagued the show since its premiere), and his portrayal of the unethical Internet female – season 1’s Nina (Hope Davis), and season 3’s Hallie (Grace Gummer). “So Mary’s story is an extension of The Newsroom’s woman problem, But [it] also is of a piece with all the other storylines in the episode, crying that digital culture, its anonymity, its renegade Redditors, its insistence that passion equals truth, and its ability to bypass the filter of expert judgment, has bought us all a ticket on the Acela straight to hell.” wrote Time’s James Poniewozik.

Is Sorkin creating a world where the word of the ‘intellectual elite’ should not be challenged by the masses on the Internet? If so, it’s easy to see how some might interpret Mary’s story as Sorkin’s way of propping up a man and saying that he can’t be taken down by allegations of rape made on the Internet, even if the law has failed the accuser. The law often fails rape victims, and The Newsroom and Sorkin failed spectacularly in their omission of this simple, and all too well known, fact.

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One thought on “Rape, The Internet, And How ‘The Newsroom’ Failed

  1. I am not sure we are meant to completely agree with Don as he argues his point with Mary. He is unable to respond to some of her points, which is as it should be. He also knows from experience that instead of finding some degree of justice, she will likely be publicly hurt and mistreated after she appears on the evening news. He delivers his points without much emotion but it is clear to me at least that his intentions are good. Which is not to say the plot is not problematic.

    It is problematic for the show to raise such a huge and complex issue as rape on college campuses and the impunity of so many in two or three scenes inserted into a rich, complex, multi-faceted episode. Clearly Sorkin is preoccupied (some might say obsessed) with how society is turning to the internet as a direct, unfiltered conduit for action, whatever the motive, from the lowest ( the harassment of celebrities) to the trivial ( “citizen journalism” ), even when the motive is to right terrible wrongs by exposing those guilty of rape. To me, the problem with this episode lies in the use of Mary’s story as something almost tangential to the main point of the show.

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