Two days after The Newsroom aired its penultimate episode, the outrage over Aaron Sorkin’s apparent stance on campus sexual assault has expanded far beyond its initial audience of Sorkin diehards and dedicated hate-watchers. Responses came pouring in, not just from the Internet shrew-hordes the creator vocally disdains but from outlets the old media champion supposedly reveres. The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum deemed the episode “crazy-making”; The Atlantic’s David Sims called the plot line “horrifying”; there was even dissent from within Sorkin’s own writers’ room. Presumably, if anything could break Sorkin’s notorious faith in his characters’, and thus his, essential rightness, this was it.
Instead, we got yet another addition to the ever-growing list of Things Aaron Sorkin Cares About More Than Rape — an item that appears somewhere above Kevin Getting Into Medical School but far, far below The Scourge of Citizen Journalism: the creative sanctity of his own writers’ room.
Shortly after “Oh Shenandoah” aired, Season 3 writer (and Tween Hobo) Alena Smith posted a series of tweets claiming that she’d objected to the subplot — where a male producer claims he’s “morally obligated” to believe an accused rapist over his accuser, then prevents the accuser from going on air against her wishes by claiming he was unable to find her — with less than stellar results:
Out of the dozens of takedowns analyzing the episode’s failings, it was Smith’s short dispatch that Sorkin singled out for response. In a statement to Mediaite, the showrunner ignored any substantive issues Smith may have had with the episode in favor of hyping up the trust she’d “broken” and the confidentiality she’d “casually violated,” all while justifying his decision to “excuse” her from the room. Spoiler: she “wouldn’t let” him get back to the all-important work of mansplaining rape, because for some reason she “wasn’t ready” to just shut up and “move on”:
Alena Smith, a staff writer who joined the show for the third season, had strong objections to the Princeton story and made those objections known to me and to the room. I heard Alena’s objections and there was some healthy back and forth. After a while I needed to move on (there’s a clock ticking) but Alena wasn’t ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn’t let me do that so I excused her from the room. The next day I wrote a new draft of the Princeton scenes–the draft you saw performed last night. Alena gave the new pages her enthusiastic support. So I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story. But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in, the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.
The statement is equal parts infuriating and fascinating, illustrating the necessity of two things Sorkin has proven he doesn’t understand by negative example. On the one hand, there’s diversity in the writers’ room — diversity in the sense of marginalized groups being not just present, but present in enough numbers that they’re not “cast into [an] outdated” role of speaking for everyone else like them, as Smith was. On the other, there’s the Internet, which may not be perfect, but at least allows creators like Sorkin to see the impact, and possibly the flaws, of their work by giving voices like The Verge’s Emily Yoshida a far-reaching platform to argue, eloquently and sharply, just where he went wrong.
Sorkin’s statement demonstrated handily that he doesn’t appreciate the virtues of either, a fact that’s both unsurprising and as perfectly indicative as “Oh Shenandoah” of how tone-deaf his phobia of all things online has rendered him. Instead, he depicted a scenario where a man is once again the victim of a big, bad Internet Girl, and preserving the sacred space of a since-disbanded writers’ room took precedence over listening to the arguments of the only woman in said room. And a man refusing to listen to a woman is, of course, exactly what Don did when he decided it’d be best for Mary, the accuser, to stay off the air, regardless of what Mary herself thought.
When the writer finally responded to actual critiques of the episode rather than attacking one of their sources, the results weren’t much better. “I understood going in that there would be backlash — some of it thoughtful, some of it less so — but that’s a bad reason not to write something,” he told the New York Times’ Bill Carter. So he mustered the bravery to write an “excruciating” scene where Don says he doesn’t believe a woman who’s eminently believable; after all, actress Sarah Sutherland “feels like our sister, our daughter, our roommate.”
There are some nasty implications there about whether the audience would or should believe an actress who doesn’t feel like any of those things — not to mention what kind of person Sorkin is describing with that repeated “our” — but there’s no time to dwell on that, because then this happens:
“Let me put it a simpler way,” he said. “She’s not a rape victim. She is an alleged rape victim and I wanted to make it harder for us to remember that. It’s easy to side with the accused in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I made it less easy last night.”
Like fictional producer Don Keefer, Sorkin doesn’t distinguish between a rape victim as determined by our deeply flawed legal system and a rape victim as determined by reality. Faith in institutions, whether the federal government or traditional media, has been a hallmark of Sorkin shows that’s now metastasized into their greatest flaw. It’s easy to believe the accused in To Kill a Mockingbird because Tom Robinson is on the wrong side of a horrifically racist system that’s designed to disempower him. It’s also easy to believe the accuser in The Newsroom because Mary’s on the wrong side of a horrifically unjust system where rapists aren’t likely to be expelled from school, let alone sent to jail. Institutions get it wrong all the time — but of course, it’s hard to see that from the perspective of someone most institutions are designed to serve.
Contempt for the Internet, an unshakeable confidence in the rightness of one’s own opinion, condescending disregard for women who disagree with that opinion, blind faith in the system: they’re all over the place in “Oh Shenandoah,” and they’re prominently on display in Aaron Sorkin’s defense of it. That’s what’s beautiful about Sorkin’s reaction to the firestorm — there’s no better proof that the firestorm is onto something.