About “The Newsroom” Penultimate Episode

I am enjoying the last season of “The Newsroom”.  Like the first two seasons, the show is not without its critics.

And I agree with some of the criticism.  For one thing, Sorkin has beat a dead horse with his views on New Media vs Old Media.  Tellingly, New Media critics hate the show because Sorkin reveres things like fact-checking and trustworthy journalism and hates things like “citizen journalism” and crowd-sourcing.  He made that point most believably in the first show of the current season, pointing out how Twitter and Reddit users identified the Boston Marathon bombers before the police did.  And the Reddit users were wrong.  And I agree with Sorkin on this, but…. he makes the same point in every show.

The latest Sorkin episode contained a controversial scene *SPOILER ALERT*.  In the episode, Don Keefer, a television news producer, was ordered to find a college student who had started a website designed to allow women to anonymously name the men who raped them. He was told to persuade her to go on live television to confront one of the men she had accused. He found the woman, who argued passionately that the legal system had failed her and so many other rape victims. Don told her that he found her credible and found the accused “sketchy,” but could still not square the idea of naming men accused of rape with his sense of fairness, which he tied to the American judicial system.

To simply accuse the man on television meant no jury and no presentation of evidence, Don Keefer argued. And when Mary, the student, countered that her assailant was innocent until proven guilty only in the legal sense, Don said he felt “morally obligated” not to name a person who has not formally been charged with a crime.  And although he clearly empathized with this young lady, and others in her situation, Don was worried about accusers who would seek revenge for something and make false claims.

This scene was widely cited in a fusillade of criticism online. Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for The New Yorker, wrote of the producer character: “He argues that the idealistic thing to do is not to believe her story.” On the Jezebel website, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote, “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.”  And Libby Hill, writing for the AV Club, said: “Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand who the victim is. He doesn’t understand how empathy works. And he, as a rich, powerful, white man in the United States, doesn’t understand that he is among the most privileged people in the world.”

I can’t agree with the criticism, most notably because it is either (a) wrong or (b) it doesn’t address Don’s concerns.

First of all, Sorkin made it very clear in the writing, and in the casting of the actress, and in everything, that Mary, the student, was not making a false allegation.  Don clearly believed her story; he said so.  That was not the issue.  The issue was… in the absence of any official action by the school authorities or the police, what should a rape victim in the fictional Mary’s case do?

To use the Internet for justice is, as Don suggests, a dicey proposition.  People make false accusations, and — even though there was no where Aaron Sorkin could have predicted this — there is a current non-fictional controversy about an account of rape at UVA as published by The Rolling Stone, an account which has since been retracted since the alleged victim’s story is… well, full of holes.

I think Keefer’s/Sorkin’s point was that there is no such thing as Internet justice, just Internet revenge.  And parading the alleged rape victim on television sitting in the same room with the alleged rapist isn’t going to result in justice either — it will be entertainment or worse than that, sports.

I certainly understand that anger of the critics of that scene.  The problem — which is reaching epidemic levels — is that campus rape simply does not get taken seriously and schools are doing a horrible job.  I think the frustration should be directed at the educational institutions, rather than whether or not justice can be achieved in some secondary and admittedly less satisfactory way.

UPDATE:  Sorkin addresses the controversy:

I really can’t speak to whether the public outcry is valid or not because I haven’t read it yet but let me say this: As callous as it may sound, the Princeton student was an alleged rape victim. There were two competing stories and the accused were purposely held offscreen. The accuser was purposely made very credible and sympathetic. I’m sure that when you watch To Kill a Mockingbird, you have no problem sympathizing with the accused and being reviled by the alleged rape victim and that’s because that’s the direction the storyteller was taking you. For better or worse (and I think it’s for better) our justice system isn’t about punishing the guilty, it’s about protecting the innocent. Even in a fictional world, where all you were told was that someone was accusing someone else of rape, and that the accused is “sketchy”, you’re bothered (I think) because I denied the accuser justice while giving a pass to the accused. The story was written to make you think about that.

What do you think?