Newsroom: If One Innocent Man…

The December 7 episode of The Newsroom was probably meant to have everyone talking about its shocking final scenes. While one or two sites seem to have bit on that score, they weren’t the thing I found most (or particularly) shocking. The event(s) seem to have become something of a trope in Sorkin’s series. I was, however, moved to a lot of conflicting brain jibbering by Don Keefer’s (Thomas Sadoski) subplot in the episode.

Spoilers ahead for anyone who’s avoiding that kind of thing.

The basic theme of scenes within ACN this week was, essentially, how Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) seems to have finally capitulated after the network’s recent sale. He pushes stories on everyone which, to a soul, they have issues with for reasons that boil down to variations on This Isn’t What News Is.

Don’s issue is with a story he’s been handed on a website created for giving women a safe, anonymous place to warn others about their attackers. The new network owner wants him to put the site’s creator, a rape victim (Sarah Sutherland), on air with one of the men she’s accused of rape via the website. Don’s not comfortable with the story. In typical Sorkin fashion, there’s a lot of Don half-saying why for a while, until he gets in a room with the college rape victim who built the website, where he encourages her not to participate in the show.

I’ll admit that the story certainly fits with the clear theme of this final season: that the Internet, by virtue of its lack of accreditation, is a troublesome source for anything resembling fairness or facts. It’s not like he pulled “the internet punishes people via mob mentality” out of thin air just for his campus rape story.

And it feels like there’s an effort being made not to turn rape victims into straw women. The arguments coming from Sutherland’s Mary are both strong and strongly acted. And while Don has plenty to say in response, I found it exceptionally telling just how quiet Sadoski plays his half of the back and forth. This argument, on just about any other topic, would usually have both parties similarly animated in their responses to one another.

I don’t know if it was Sadoski’s choice, or Paul Lieberstein’s (the director), but the stillness and lower volume of Keefer’s responses, the measured way he spoke, at least gave me the impression that people involved knew just how (justifiably) uncomfortable and possibly tenuous Don’s position was. This wasn’t Don as he usually is (as, honestly, many of these characters usually are), snapping back his rejoinders with an unshakable sense of his rightness.

All that said, whatever argument you put in a principal’s mouth has a tendency to automatically lend extra credence to that argument over any made by a guest star. When said principal’s argument is intertwined with a season-long case you’ve been making, it gets even stronger. When the final decision your principal makes falls in line with that argument at the “y’see, Timmy” moment in the episode… you get my point.

And that argument is, essentially, “A man might be falsely accused of rape via this website, and we’d be helping that happen if we brought you on our show.”

I get that this is about taking sensationalizing out of news. I get that it’s about not letting people like Nancy Grace call themselves journalists as they pronounce judgement on criminal suspects with little to no facts (or just ignoring facts altogether).

Still.

I just don’t know if this particular scenario is one that works. It is possible that some man some where might be accused of rape maliciously. But pretty much every statistic on this suggests that the opposite is true: men who rape are far more likely to get the benefit of the doubt that they just “misinterpreted signals.” That in matters of “he said, she said,” he said–especially Caucasian he said–holds extra weight just by virtue of not starting with that feminizing “s.” That a swath of rape victims continue to have their integrity called into question, and thus wind up double-victimized. That, as a result, another swath of rape victims never say a thing, because they’re trying to avoid having their lives ruined by the aspersions cast by their own attacker.

No, a website isn’t a court of law. But we’ve seen time and time again that the more likely response to exactly the scenario Sorkin posits (public naming of a rape suspect), especially on the Internet, is far more often to be a raging pile of flame war at best, and death threats at worst.

When women can’t even suggest that video games have a tendency toward objectifying women without receiving death threats, and when those threats are, like accusations of rape, dismissed as attempts to vilify men, I just have a really hard time listening to an argument to silence debate and visibility as regards rape culture. Which, no matter how carefully they tried, still hit me as an undercurrent of that storyline.

It certainly helps no one whatsoever that the “but what about false accusations” argument comes from a straight, Caucasian male character. Especially when stood next to said character’s girlfriend, Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), who in the same episode grinds another ACN employee to dust, on air, over the stalker potential of his smartphone app.

Maybe those two storylines were meant to be a contrast, to provide some kind of give and take. But the fact of the matter is, I feel like this is the same kind of balance / equal time philosophy that suggests we should teach Evolution and Creationism as two kinds of science, rather than a science and a theological doctrine; or that you should put climate change denial groups in a one-to-one pairing with scientists in a newscast.

In the end, though, however hard they tried, this storyline just feels like a Caucasian male character (with an argument constructed by a Caucasian male writer) essentially telling a female character–who is clearly meant as a stand in for the frightening number of women in similar situations–that she needs to behave better Because The System.

From a show whose mission statement has so very often been to flip off the status quo because it’s more important to be better than to behave, I can’t help but be disappointed.

ETA: I’m slow at this kind of response writing, so by the time I’d done this, it seems a metric ton of folks had already responded faster and better than I had. Abigail Nussbaum links to a wide selection of some of the best, as well as taking on Sorkin’s own response to the fallout from the episode. Click through and have a read.