Aaron Sorkin Dedicates The Penultimate Episode Of The Newsroom To Some Men, #NotAllMen
Finally, Aaron Sorkin places himself where no one wanted him: at the intersection of campus rape and the internet.
It's both impossible and pointless to say what may turn out to be the worst effect of Rolling Stone retracting its story about a gang rape at UVA. There's the damage that the scandal surrounding the retraction could do to the accuser's credibility, even though a look at the grounds on which her account is being disputed are pretty absurd. ("...no ritualized sexual assault is part of our pledging or initiating process,' the fraternity said." OH, WORD?!) There's the chance that other accused rapists in high-profile cases (of which there are so depressingly many right now that I hardly need identify them because you know who I mean) will point to this seeming proof of survivors' fabrication to exonerate themselves. But I'm most furious at the thought that Aaron Sorkin read about Rolling Stone's retraction and decided that meant the view he advanced in this penultimate episode of The Newsroom has been vindicated. It goddamn fucking hasn't.
Maybe you thought that things at good old ACN would slow down or be less annoying with Will in jail. But that's just exactly why Sorkin had to put Pruit in position as the new network overlord, bringing all his shitty, irresponsible ideas about TV journalism to fruition with barely any pushback from MacKenzie or Sloan or Don, and open collaboration from Charlie, AS IF ANYTHING WE HAVE EVER SEEN ANY OF THEIR CHARACTERS DO SUPPORTS THE IDEA THAT THEY WOULDN'T PROTEST OR QUIT WHETHER THEIR GOD WILL WAS PRESENT IN THE BUILDING OR IN JAIL MENDING FENCES WITH HIS FUCKING GHOST DAD. And one of the shitty, irresponsible ideas Pruit has is to cover the story of a Princeton rape survivor who's created a website on which her fellow (female) students can anonymously name the (male) students who have raped them by having Don ferret out her identity and then convince her to come on his show for a sitdown with one of her rapists.
So, straight up top we have a dumb premise for a storyline. Even in a week in which a REAL rich jerk's purchase of a REAL media property and subsequent personal overreach within that REAL organization apparently blew up in his face, I find it hard to believe that it would take less than eight weeks for Pruit to have started imposing his uninformed vision upon all of ACN. But fine, pretend that's realistic. There has to be a reason that we don't actually get a scene in which Pruit explains why he thinks arranging and broadcasting this conversation is a good idea (Don repeating that it's "promotable" doesn't count), and I feel like it's because SORKIN CAME UP WITH THE PREMISE and then EVEN HIS OWN IMAGINATION FAILED HIM when it came to having EVEN AN EXTREMELY ODIOUS CHARACTER JUSTIFY IT.
But whatever, the New Docile Don complies with this request; he finds Mary, the student who started the site, and meets her in her room. (When she asks how he found her and he recounts the steps he took to identify her -- since, remember, she was anonymous -- Thomas Sadoski weirdly plays it like Don's really proud of having found her, and Sarah Sutherland, who plays Mary, is all impressed by his detective work, whereas I feel like a woman who was in that position would be more likely to have asked because she wanted to know which missteps she made in safeguarding her privacy and, by extension, her safety.) And then I guess they do what a helpful Twitter user told me Jim and Hallie were doing last week that I totally misunderstood.
— SisterPress (@Ms_Danna) December 1, 2014
— SisterPress (@Ms_Danna) December 1, 2014
With very little preamble, Mary tells Don the story of her rape: she was intoxicated at a party, some guys "helped" her onto a bed, and when they got her alone, "they took turns raping [her]." "And the next day you called the police," says Don calmly -- see, he's trying to determine whether she, as a victim, did all the right things a victim is supposed to do. Good thing for Mary, she did! But even though she called the city police, campus police, and the D.A.'s office, gave them her rapists' names, and told them where her rapists live, nothing happened. Don has a mansplanation, though: "The kind of rape you're talking about is usually--" "It's not 'a kind of rape,'" Mary sharply corrects him. There's a beat. "Sure," says Don. "SURE," he says! Hey, quick Q: I know Will used to be a prosecutor because the show has been reminding us in every episode this season, but the fuck does DON know about how different flavours of rape get prosecuted in New Jersey or anyfuckingwhere else? Why is he STARTING by arguing this woman out of her own experience or defending the system that has forced her -- possibly at risk of her own safety, since if Don could find her based on the random clues she dropped in her blog posts, so could someone who wishes to silence her by doing her further harm -- to take her case directly to the public?
Don won't shut up, though. After telling Mary Pruit's idea to bring her into the studio with her attacker, Don says, "I'm here to beg you not to do it." This is where the scene breaks off so we can see what's up with Jim and Maggie and their ultimately pointless attempt to get some face time with Edward Snowden on his flight from Moscow to Havana and also fall in love along the way, but when we return to Don and Mary, he's still patronizing her. He says he spoke to her rapist (even though she'd said earlier that there were multiple assailants, I guess Don's just focusing on one main instigator?), and when she asks what the guy told Don, he demurs, "You don't want to know." No, she...does want to know? She's an adult woman? The information you've collected for the story you've just said you don't want to report is relevant to her life? Don finally admits that the guy said it was consensual sex; when Mary denies it, Don condescendingly says that this matter can be settled in court, and Sorkin at least lets Mary call bullshit on that, given that there hasn't even been an arrest.
Here's where it gets really fucked up, though: after Mary lays out the actual facts of why there's probably no point in her swimming against the current of the justice system -- to wit, "Mine's going to be one of the 700,000 untested rape kits, so I started this website" (which, demonstrably given Don's presence in her room, has gotten her further than any of the authorities ever did) -- Don brings up Sloan's experience with her ex's revenge porn.
Mary: This isn't revenge. It's a warning. It's a public service: do not go on a date with these guys. Do not go to a party with these guys.
Don: Do not give these guys a job, ever.
Mary: Wait, they're avoiding jail, and you think I'm being too harsh?
Don: Don't you think there's a chance that somebody's going to use this site as revenge? That somebody's going to make up a story and ruin a kid's life? Jeff got into Stanford Medical School: not anymore. There were NFL teams looking at Brandon: not anymore.
Mary: Yeah, you can imagine how sad that makes me.
Don: Don't you think there's a chance that somebody -- a woman who feels rejected, a woman who--
Mary: Yeah, bitches be bitches, I get it.
Don: I'm just saying that if a grown man who works in arbitrage at one of the biggest banks in the world can post naked pictures of his ex on RevengePorn.com--
Mary: Yes, I think there's a chance, and I've weighed the cost/benefit. I have. If another girl got raped because I didn't say anything, or because someone else didn't say anything--
Don: I know.
Mary: You don't know.
Don: You're right about that too.
What's infuriating is that, like my Twitter friend said, this has the form of an ethical argument. But even though Don's side of the argument is valid only 2% of the time, his character gets to come across as reasonable and measured, whereas Mary, as the crime victim, is presented as the one who's lashing out emotionally. She's crying. She's not being dispassionate -- that's a privilege only Don has, in this situation.
In other words, even though Mary's side of the argument does get an airing, it's undercut by her demeanour. Worse, from Aaron Sorkin's perspective, Mary's side is undercut by her having rejected the system that EVEN DON agrees has failed her, and tried to seek a different kind of justice, because she's committed the gravest sin that any person but especially an emotional woman can: she took it to the internet. So in the next Don/Mary scene, when Mary asks Don whether he believes her, he says he does...but also that he's "obligated to believe the sketchy guy." The point that Don the "Prototype" is trying to make is that Mary's rapist deserves the presumption of innocence, at least until a trial (that will never happen) determines otherwise, because Don trusts in the legal system.
What Aaron Sorkin doesn't seem to have realized in creating this scenario, and what Don therefore does not acknowledge, is that Don has no obligation to maintain his objectivity. Don doesn't have to give Mary's rapist the benefit of the doubt while the evidence gets an airing because Don is not on the jury that will determine said rapist's guilt: THERE WILL BE NO SUCH JURY. Right now and forever after, as far as this story is concerned, Don is not a juror, he's just a person. And as a PERSON who's heard TWO STORIES that are DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED, DON LITERALLY CAN'T BELIEVE BOTH MARY AND ALSO THE GUY WHO DENIES RAPING HER. Either Mary was raped or she wasn't! BOTH THINGS CAN'T BE TRUE!!!
If Aaron Sorkin is going to look to real events to inspire his fictional work, then I'll just leave some actual facts about campus rape in the real world right here. I'll even stipulate that I am personally biased in favour of rape survivors' stories FOR ALL THE OBVIOUS REASONS. That's why, if I were granted an hour of premium cable TV and chose to use some of it to dramatize the issue of campus rape, I probably wouldn't bother using very much to explore the question of how much concern we should have for the reputations of wrongfully accused rapists who totally didn't even do anything and are just getting screwed over by their angry exes. BECAUSE THAT BASICALLY NEVER HAPPENS.
After Don listens to Mary's story and hears her say she wants to face her attacker on TV, at which he tells her they'll be in touch, he goes back to the office and overrules her, lying to Charlie that he couldn't find her. And look, I said up top that this summit was a misbegotten idea, and I still think that, but if Don's going to present the opportunity to Mary and give her the chance to say SHE WANTS to participate, then what fucking right does Don have to ignore her stated wishes? He could have told Charlie he couldn't find her without ever having bothered her with the prospect of getting to tell her story to a large audience. But instead, he disrupted her life, ignored her efforts to maintain her anonymity, and when she told him how she wanted to proceed, he just went ahead and overruled her. But I mean, she WAS crying. How could he be sure she even understood what she was consenting to?! Best to leave these decisions to calm, dispassionate, dry-eyed men.
And even though Sorkin seems like he's let Mary give a full airing to the understandable reasons that someone in her position might choose to start an accusatory website...in case we were in any doubt as to what he really thinks, we move on to Sloan closing out her plotline by defying Charlie's appeasement and interviewing Bree. Pruit has let Bree, the head of ACN Digital in Neal's absence, create an app called ACNgage, which apparently lets people post sightings of celebrities. Sloan's embarrassed by it because her friend Erin Andrews was targeted by paparazzi after an ACNgage post, and also because it's a gross, grubby thing for a news organization to sponsor, so Sloan invites Bree on her show so that she can entrap him into admitting that he thinks rich and powerful people have no right to privacy, besides which the posts aren't fact-checked anyway. Sloan suggests that a psychotic stalker could see a report on his pet celebrity and follow said celebrity to the Arclight to stab her or whatever, so Bree should be very ashamed, even though a psychotic stalker could just as easily get that information from most celebrities' own Twitter feeds.
I'm not going to sit here and act like a better-part-of-a-decade-later Gawker Stalker is something any fictional person should be particularly proud of, or that celebrities are public property whose banal errands are events worthy of being reported on the news. What I object to is Aaron Sorkin writing a TV episode in which the reckless users who post on Bree's app are morally equivalent with the anonymous, terrified, traumatized students who post on Mary's blog; an episode in which a righteously crusading Sloan's defense of celebrities (which seems counter-intuitive given their fame and wealth) is morally equivalent with Don's defense of accused rapists (which seems counter-intuitive because THERE IS STATISTICALLY A 98% CHANCE THAT THEY ARE RAPISTS). I understand that Sorkin thinks he's dramatizing "both sides." I'm saying I believe women, which is why I am not as sure as he is that, on this one, there are two sides worth dramatizing.