I have a love-hate relationship with television writer Aaron Sorkin’s shows. They’re smart, well-researched, and the dialogue reads like good musical theater lyrics. By the end of most episodes, I’m left wanting to sing along to the ‘Good Truths of Old’ that the show champions—traditional American values of freedom, honor, truth, justice, etc. The Newsroom, which recently aired its final season on HBO, is no exception. However, watching Sorkin’s shows now, I find that I am plagued with a textbook case of “your fave is problematic,” because for all the well-constructed dialogue and theater monologue-like asides, Sorkin’s protagonists are blinded by privilege.
On a smaller cable network like HBO, The Newsroom had a more limited audience but greater creative license. It was oddly fitting because it’s hard to sing the Good Truths of Old to an audience that’s lived in the U.S. past the turn of the century—the show’s protagonist, Will McAvoy, actually spends the opening scene of the show lamenting the loss of a golden age in America—but The Newsroom sang a song of hope anyway, believing in the ideals upon which the U.S. was built, the greater good.
Unlike The West Wing in the 90’s, I found myself watching The Newsroom as less of an indication of the U.S.’s potential and more of an idealistic take on events that happened 2010-2012, a romantic dramedy take on journalistic ideals, so when I heard that the second to last episode would focus on the issue of campus rape, I wasn’t optimistic—not because I was afraid that the writing wouldn’t do the issue justice but because the Good Truths of Old have never applied—or tried to apply—to rape victims.
In the episode, amid a change in management, reporter Don Keefer, a news producer, learns that Mary, a female college student at Yale, has started her own website where those who have been raped but don’t have enough evidence to accuse their attackers can put information about their attackers online to warn other victims. Don’s assigned to travel to Yale and convince Mary to debate her accused rapist on the air (if that disgusts you, it should—the new management ruthlessly wants ratings above all else). In a move that’s picked up quite a bit of controversy on the Internet, Don obeys his boss, only to beg Mary not to go on the air to tell her story. He tells her that being in the public eye is going to ruin her life, that she’s going to be slut-shamed by a number of people watching and that she’s part of a ratings ploy that doesn’t care about her.
Don had a point, but that’s not why people were angry.
Mary tells Don her story and asks if he believes her. He essentially tells her that, even though she has a lot more credibility than her rapist, he’s obliged to believe him instead because of the “innocent until proven guilty” ideal that guards the justice system.
That pissed off the Internet. The biggest criticism I’ve seen is the writing for the scene was flawed, Don was out of character and it didn’t do justice to rape victims. That’s not my problem, though. My problem is the scene was written and executed entirely in character. Don stayed true to the Good Truths of Old, but the problem with the Good Truths of Old is they are absolutely tied to privilege: privilege that Don can’t see past. The Newsroom’s campus rape storyline was written and told blindly.
It’s no secret that Aaron Sorkin’s characters are incredibly idealistic. That’s part of their heroic charm—they want to uphold truth, honor, freedom, etc., usually by way of a dramatic monologue that cites several white Founding Father-type intellectuals. When the system built upon these ideals is broken, these characters try to fix it, a quality that is presented as noble and heroic. So, we see Don act very in-character in the case of the campus rape storyline, because that’s a different issue. He believes Mary—even admits the system wasn’t designed to protect victims—but, at the end of the day, feels obligated to uphold the system—the “innocent until proven guilty” part—because that ideal is what he really and truly believes.
I wasn’t enraged. I was just sad, because for all of his and his colleagues’ faith, belief in the system is a privilege. Mary knows (like a lot of us do) it’s very hard to get rapists put away. Mary also knows (though I wish that they’d had her articulate it better) an assumption of innocence has privilege tied to it, through and through. Don, as well as several of his newsroom colleagues, is the beneficiary of a lot of these privileges–he’s white, straight, male and very well educated. He’s a well-intentioned champion of the Good Truths of Old, as are any of Sorkin’s overworked, bright-eyed, freedom-loving protagonists.
It’s not that The Newsroom’s writing staff isn’t aware of societal imbalances of race, gender, etc. Sorkin’s shows in the past have shown an awareness of these issues. When Ainsley Hayes, a female White House staffer on Sorkin’s show The West Wing started getting anonymous hate messages from people in her office, her boss’s response was to fire the offenders by sending them a message (and making a point to sign his name). An episode of another of Sorkin’s shows, Sports Night, had an episode when Issac Jaffe, the Black managing editor of the news show, struggled with the decision to speak out against his bosses’ racist actions.
The West Wing and Sports Night are both shows that aired in the 90s, and such stances on race and gender repeat and are reused, to a certain extent, throughout Sorkin’s shows, an action that fans have affectionately named “Sorkinisms.” The problem is, besides these few scenes, the writing hasn’t expanded to include anything new—even the plot of the campus rape episode bears a lot of resemblance to “Mary Pat Shelby,” an episode of Sports Night in which the characters also have to deal with the possibility of putting a rapist on television (and then decide not to). Seeing the same stance reflected in The Newsroom, then, a show that’s taking place a decade into the new millennium, makes me realize how little this writing staff knows—beyond a few select arguments—how discrimination works in the 21st century.
The problem with the law and crime is that it was broken to begin with and is tied in with the loaded societal assumption of innocence, which, let’s be honest, works on a sliding scale depending on your race, gender, sexuality, and several other factors that define privilege. Don is privileged. Of course he’s going to scream innocent until proven guilty until the end of time, even when faced with a slew of facts that indicate the system he champions is broken and slanted in favor of a bracket of people that doesn’t include the college student sitting in front of him. Don does the best he can when talking to Mary, but he—and the ideals he champions—is intellectually incapable of helping her any more than he does.
Don’s actions themselves are not a failure on the part of the show. The failure comes when The Newsroom disregards privilege. In response to Internet anger, including one of the members of his writing staff, Sorkin said the storyline was supposed to make the audience think. Making the audience think is not The Newsroom’s style, though. The show has set a precedent for how it defines good and bad ethics—journalists don’t give up their sources, social media is a powerful but ultimately destructive medium, etc. Don’s response to Mary didn’t contain ethical ambiguity—he was personally distressed, yes, but he remained solid in his belief, much like the fault in the ideals upheld by The Newsroom flew completely over this episode’s head. Ultimately, Mary chooses not to come on the show.
As much as I like the concept of The Newsroom and the idea that there are a bunch of journalist heroes out there fighting for truth, honor, and the works, I’m also glad the last episode has aired. It’s not that I think the show’s values are dated—it’s that the values presented as good, the values championed on any of Sorkin’s shows, are simply the wrong ones. I only have to look at what’s happening in my country right now to see that, for the best intentions, those ideals don’t include a significant portion of our population. Those ideals don’t include me. So it’s disturbing, not comforting, that those are the ideals that the “good guys” out there are fighting for.