In July 2012, I saw my grocery store on HBO. I was watching The Newsroom, like the dedicated Aaron Sorkin fan I was at the time, and there it was: my local Safeway. Just as the show revisited the BP oil spill and the rise of the Tea Party, The Newsroom dramatized the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which occurred walking distance from my home. It was the show’s fourth episode, and the one that made it clear The Newsroom was essentially Aaron Sorkin Knows Better than You, America. The show’s didactic proclamations about what the news should be (“A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news!”) became a running joke between my friends, and I dropped off the show completely. It wasn’t that I was uninterested, it’s just that I already knew what each episode would be. Every hero is a Sorkin stand-in and every villain is an Internet girl. There was nothing I could gain from watching.
This week, The Newsroom came barreling back into my life when it decided to tackle the issue of campus rape. I hadn’t watched the show since that season one episode, but the storm of critics on Twitter pulled me back in. “This [episode] is the punishment for our collective sins,” wrote Eric Thurm, “the reckoning.” Hell, I watched the SVU campus rape episode last year after my father misguidedly DVR’ed it for me. Why not check this one out?
This episode revolved around crusading reporter Don Keefer and a college rape victim who has created a website where other victims could name their rapists. Don’s producer (did you know B.J. Novak was on this show? I sure didn’t!) wants the woman and the man she says raped her to go on live television and have a…debate? Mediation? It’s not clear. Don (rightfully) thinks it’s an awful idea, but wants to keep his job, so he literally stalks the victim, Mary, to her college dorm room. After throwing a furtive glance at the door — should I close it? Will she accuse me of rape? his eyes say — he sits Mary down and tries to convince her that she shouldn’t go on national TV, despite her insistence that she wants to.
The Newsroom has never been subtle. As Emily Nussbaum put it, the people who are arguing against its protagonists are only ever allowed to make 15-75% of a full argument, because Will McAvoy and his team are all Sorkin, and Sorkin has something to tell you, goddammit. In this episode, McAvoy is trapped in a jail cell with his ghost dad, so it’s up to Don to explain to this young rape victim what is best. After urging her not to go on television, he spends a lot of time explaining how her website is hurting people. Yes, he admits, it’s unfair that “that kind of rape” (“it’s not a kind of rape,” Mary shoots back) will never make it to a courtroom, but what if some spurned woman (it’s always a woman) falsely accuses someone? What will happen to the hypothetically bright future of our young men? The episode then goes above and beyond in its quest to prove that the privacy of likely criminals trumps safety, comparing victims publicly naming their rapists to jealous exes leaking revenge porn. There is no grey in this scene: it was a good debate, but the reasonable Don is right, and the tearfully overemotional Mary is wrong.
“I’m gonna win this time,” insists Mary near the end of her conversation with Don. In that moment, for the first turn since its premiere, The Newsroom affected me. I know what it’s like to feel that incredible and desperate need to win. I know what it’s like to genuinely believe that if you push hard enough, you can beat what happened to you. I know what it’s like to turn a trauma into a crusade as a way to cope.
But you never win. Your attacker never sees the inside of an interrogation room or a court room. He’s never really punished for what he did. He’s just that guy that went abroad, or transferred. So you get angry. You report him to the school. You go to the press to make sure someone knows that everything about the system is wrong. But if you mess up — if you lash out, or don’t respond to emails, or didn’t have the right kind of trauma enacted on your body — it only gets worse. You get mocked, you get called a liar. If you’re not upset enough, you’re told it wasn’t that bad. Either way, you get told to deal with it and shut the hell up.
These are memories and feelings great TV can conjure up — the first season of The Americans comes to mind — but this isn’t what The Newsroom wanted me to feel. The Newsroom is not here to give the women whose lives it is drawing on a voice. It’s meant to convince us that Don is right, that we have a moral obligation to only form opinions after the courts do. My real life has no place on this show, the same way it had no place there two years ago when Sorkin tried to tell the nation how to properly report on Gabby Gifford’s condition amidst the confusion of grief.
This episode would be awful any night of the year, but it’s especially unfortunate in the wake of the University of Virginia case. After Rolling Stone took the time to blame Jackie’s possibly incorrect memories (a common side effect of trauma) rather than their own sloppy and lazy reporting, it’s hard to watch Don decide what is best for Mary, over her clear requests. And it’s hard to watch Sorkin argue that if survivors can’t get justice in a courtroom (something he acknowledges is nearly impossible) then it’s best to shut up. He tells journalists that they are there to report verdicts and not ongoing stories. At one point Don literally says that when confronted with two stories, one from a “very credible woman” and one from a “sketchy” guy, he’s “obligated to believe the sketchy guy.”
In the end, I’m not particularly surprised. The Newsroom has always been about mourning the death of a man’s world at the hand of us Internet girls. Sorkin will probably never have an interest in telling a different story. He might believe that we all have a moral obligation to believe the sketchy guy, but I disagree. We need to start listening to and believing survivors. It’s our job, not just as journalists, but as people.
Featured image courtesy of timeinc.net