From shaming rape victims to ghost dads, is there anything else "The Newsroom" can do to piss off audiences?
Wow, there was so much awfulness in last night's episode of The Newsroom that it's hard to know where to begin.
Wait, never mind, I know exactly where to begin: the part where Aaron Sorkin spends a third of the episode shaming a rape victim for speaking out against her attacker.
One of the major subplots of "Oh Shenandoah" focuses on a Princeton student (Veep's Sarah Sutherland) who, after consuming alcohol and MDMA, was raped by two men at a party. In the wake of the attack, the student took every possible step to seek out justice, calling campus and city police and having a rape kit administered. And yet no charges were brought against the men responsible. So in the absence of a fair system for reporting rape, and to help other women warn against rapists on campus, she launched a website for sexual assault victims to name their attackers, anonymously or otherwise.
And Sorkin is having none of that.
His concern is a familiar one: What if a woman posts a false report to the website out of revenge? Or maybe just out of sheer insanity? After all, hysteria does seems to be Sorkin's go-to emotion for women on his shows. And then what if poor Johnny Football loses his scholarship without due process because of an accusation on the site? These are the types of questions Sorkin has Don (Thomas Sadoski) ask the woman in preparation for a highly problematic dual interview on ACN featuring the accuser and the accused.
At first, I thought, "Sorkin can't possibly believe that Don's line of questioning has any merit. Don's simply testing the woman to make sure she's capable of answering the kinds of unfair attacks she's sure to receive once thrust into the public eye, right?"
Wrong. Instead, this is just another instance of Sorkin seeking to make one of his Big Important Points™ -- which, based on how he juxtaposes the rape subplot with another storyline about a celebrity stalking app, is that people's private lives should remain private, even if they probably raped somebody.
To be clear, being accused of a crime you didn't commit -- particularly a crime as insidious as rape -- would be a horrifying experience. But perhaps somebody should tell Sorkin that while between 2 percent to 8 percent of rape accusations are found to be false, a whopping 40 percent of rapes go unreported. Furthermore, while it's certainly possible for a rape accusation to ruin somebody's life, I think Sorkin's hypothetical football player will keep his scholarship, whether he really raped a woman or not. A sexual assault accusation didn't prevent Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston from winning a Heisman Trophy and leading his team to a National Championship last season. Nor has it prevented him from vying for a second title this season. All this from a guy who recently wrote, "[t]he only thing as vicious as rape is falsely accusing someone of rape." I don't know, Jameis, you seem to be doing just fine.
In an unfortunate coincidence, this episode comes on the heels of Rolling Stone's disastrous handling of a story about "Jackie," a University of Virginia student who claimed she was raped by multiple men at a fraternity party. Now, her story's been called into question by the accused fraternity, causing Rolling Stone's Managing Editor to basically throw the accuser under the bus -- despite the highly unorthodox and possibly unethical way in which the Rolling Stone writer handled the story. And so regardless of whether all or part of Jackie's story is false, the whole debacle has made it that much more difficult for rape victims to come forward without being accused of lying. Meanwhile, Sorkin makes matters even worse here by reinforcing those same unhealthy attitudes toward sexual assault allegations.
The UVA rape story isn't the only way in which "Oh Shenandoah" coincidentally imitates real life -- it's just the most offensive. As it happens, the increasing tensions between ACN's new tech mogul owner and his staff of old-fashioned elitists bears a striking resemblance to the drama now taking place at The New Republic -- most notably because everyone involved, from the new guard to the old guard, is acting like a total brat.
The audience is told that 52 days have passed since last week's episode, "Contempt," which ended with the villainous tech baron Lucas Pruitt (B.J. Novak) taking over ACN and promising to reshape it in his own buzzword-damaged Silicon Valley image. In the interim, Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), despite spending the entire series shaking his fists in anger at any post-Edward R. Murrow innovation, from Instagram to color TV, has finally been broken. To keep Pruitt from dismantling his team of friends and colleagues, Skinner has chosen instead to carry out his evil boss's every sensational demand, including the launch of ACNgage, a celebrity-tracking app modeled after the now-defunct Gawker Stalker.
And what thanks does Skinner get from his staff? They undermine him at every turn, culminating in a segment in which anchor Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) humiliates the young web producer responsible for ACNgage on live television. Sabbith's insubordination to her new digital overlord is too much for Skinner to take, and he has a heart attack and dies right there on the newsroom floor.
Throughout the show's three seasons, digital media has caused its fair share of carnage. But never before has Sorkin gone so far to have New Journalism actually murder someone in cold blood.
The scene should be a lot sadder than it plays -- Skinner was a great man, beloved and respected by his colleagues, who were really more like his family. But the scene's implications -- that new media not only ruined him professionally but also literally murdered him -- are too absurd to take seriously.
As for the celebrity stalker app, it's as tasteless and sad as Sorkin makes it out to be. But by allowing it to serve as a stand-in for all digital media, it distorts the reality of how innovation can and should take place within news organizations. While the app's geolocation tools and self-publishing capabilities make ACNgage especially dangerous, the app isn't bad because of its technology. It's bad for the same reasons tabloid journalism has always been bad. And while it's fine and perfectly admirable to critique our celebrity-obsessed culture and the tabloids that enable it, framing this as a battle between traditional media and digital media is disingenuous. Tabloids found plenty of ways to be awful before the Internet came along.
There's even more to talk about here, like the appearance of a Ghost Dad who posits that he wasn't trying to be a dick when he used to beat up Will (Jeff Daniels) and his mom -- he just wanted to take his son fishing. And somehow that's supposed to make us empathize with the father? Man, this show is a nightmare. We also see the final resolution to television's least interesting "will-they-or-won't-they" narrative. (Spoiler alert: Maggie picks Jim, though to be honest I liked her better with the McPoyle guy from Always Sunny).
I should stop now -- I still need to save a bit of outrage for next week's episode, the last of the series. Frankly, I don't know what more the show can do to piss off audiences, but I'm confident Sorkin will find something. He always does.
[illustration by Hallie Bateman]