The XX Factor

The Newsroom’s Nightmare Campus Rape Episode

Watching The Newsroom always feels like a nightmare. The show lifts news stories from the recent past, rewinds them, and plays them back at Aaron Sorkin speed. Human characters are recast as looming, metaphorical figures who move through the journalistic scenery unbound by the waking rules of logic, speaking as if they’ve all been programmed by the same half-processed psyche. Sorkin’s psychodrama is typically bent on criticizing easy tabloid fodder while venerating “serious” journalism—when the series took on the Anthony Weiner sexts, it invented a clownish, money-grubbing accuser who the show’s high-minded journalists loathed; when it covered the Gabby Giffords shooting, it set a valiant reporting montage to the tune of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” In Sunday night’s episode, the specter of campus rape entered Sorkin’s moralistic dreamscape.

The ludicrous contours of the plot are these: Don Keefer, executive producer for the fictional cable network Atlantis Cable News (representing: Fairness and Integrity), is compelled by his ratings-hungry overlords (representing: Corporate Soulnessness) to track down Mary, a Princeton student who says she was raped by two fellow students at a party and has created an anonymous website encouraging campus rape victims to publicly name the alleged rapists who have evaded justice. Don’s bosses want him to persuade Mary (representing: Digital Vigilantism) to come on ACN to live debate one of the men she has accused of attacking her.

Mary, who was ignored by campus and local police after heading to a hospital and reporting the rape, agrees to the segment in lieu of speaking to the jury she’ll never get. But then, Don decides to persuade Mary to turn down his offer and throws a mess of justifications her way in the hope that one will stick. He argues that Mary’s website will one day ruin the reputation of an innocent man. He says that though he’s already interviewed the man Mary herself accused and deemed him “sketchy,” he has a “moral obligation” to believe him over her due to the gravity of the accusation. He argues that the segment will result in a “lawless food fight” that will simultaneously smear the accused and “slut-shame” the accuser. And he ultimately makes the case that the media is not an appropriate venue for hashing out reports of rape that have not been adjudicated by the courts. “The Internet is used for vigilantism every day, but this is a whole new level, and if we go there, we are truly fucked,” Don counsels Mary. “It’s sports, Mary. It will be covered like sports.” Despite Don’s campus rape word salad, Mary accepts his network’s offer anyway, confident that in this game, she’ll “win.” So when Don returns to the newsroom with Mary’s blessing, he lies and informs the overlords that he couldn’t find her, effectively burying ACN’s campus rape segment entirely.

True to form, Sorkin has recast a complicated question—how should the news business cover claims of sexual assault?—into a snappy, two-sided debate between a heroic journalist and an alleged rape victim. As Emily Nussbaum put it in her New Yorker review of the episode, Sorkin’s “dialogue conflates and freely combines” all of the moral, journalistic, and legal issues raised by airing stories of rape. Don and Mary have ostensibly met to speak about applying a specific journalistic treatment to a specific case, but their conversation ends up devolving into theoretical posturing over the nature of rape allegations. (This setup is particularly bizarre because there is at least one clear third party to this debate—the accused—who never appears onscreen; only the alleged victim is forced to rebut Sorkin’s quick-fire moralizing.) So, a truly insane idea—two college students, debating whether one of them raped the other one, on live television!—is meant to serve as an object lesson on the pitfalls of sexual assault reporting in general. Sorkin seems to regard all rape stories as equally suspect, regardless of the accuser’s willingness to report the rape to the police, regardless of the independently verifiable evidence she’s amassed, regardless of her willingness to confront the accused face-to-face, and regardless of the journalist’s own power to frame the story in a way that best captures both the individual and broader truths of campus sexual assault in as complex a way as he sees fit.

In the end, Sorkin’s form requires not just a two-sided debate, but a clear moral victor, and Don wins by shutting the segment down—the ideal end for all tabloid-y fodder pitched to ACN’s journalists by their nefarious corporate rulers. As Nussbaum puts it, “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,” she writes. “Instead … Don’s fighting for no coverage … he just wants the issue to go away. And Don is our hero!”  

As usual, Sorkin’s take says more about him than it does his subject. After the episode aired Sunday night, Alena Smith, a Newsroom writer, tweeted that Sorkin had dismissed her concerns about the episode in its writing. Wrote Smith: “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.” Sorkin’s episode concludes that campus rape is too confusing for journalists to take on. It’s not clear why Sorkin believes he alone is up to the task.  

It’s impossible to watch last night’s show without thinking of Rolling Stone, the outlet that ran with a college student’s explosive rape story and came to regret it. But there’s a third option between telling a salacious tale and not saying anything at all. As long as Sorkin is dreaming up journalistic heroes, surely he can find one fair enough to figure that out.