The Newsroom Had a Campus-Rape Subplot. It Was Not Well Received

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This week's episode of The Newsroom — the show's second-to-last in this abbreviated third season — was actually right on the news! For once, a show that had been roundly criticized for re-litigating old stories and regularly mocked for showing all of us the "right" way to have covered big events of the past few years finally found itself predicting the future, writing a subplot that dovetailed with current events. Great, right?

Days after a Rolling Stone report about a University of Virginia gang rape imploded in that magazine's face, and in the midst of a seemingly ever-expanding series of rape allegations against Bill Cosby, The Newsroom included a subplot about a university student who says she was raped and, after receiving no justice from university and municipal authorities, sets up a website where women can anonymously report sexual assaults. In order to juice ratings and engagement among younger viewers, Don is sent to convince her to appear on News Night, where she can directly confront one of her attackers. Instead, he tries to convince her of the danger of her website, which could be used to make false accusations against innocent men.

The episode was not well received.

"Look, 'The Newsroom' was never going to be my favorite series, but I didn’t expect it to make my head blow off, all over again, after all these years of peaceful hate-watching. Don’s right, of course: a public debate about an alleged rape would be a nightmare. Anonymous accusations are risky and sometimes women lie about rape (Hell, people lie about everything). But on a show dedicated to fantasy journalism, Sorkin’s stand-in doesn’t lobby for more incisive coverage of sexual violence or for a responsible way to tell graphic stories without getting off on the horrible details or for innovative investigations that could pressure a corrupt, ass-covering system to do better. Instead, he argues that the idealistic thing to do is not to believe her story." —Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

"Its arguments about whom to 'believe' in the case of rape accusations were terrible. Its arguments about reporting said accusations were terrible. Its reliance on preachy strawman arguments was terrible. Its cranky obsession with the evils of the Internet was terrible. And it added up—in a final season that began with the promise of the series becoming better and subtler in the end—as a terrible episode even by the standards of the series’ earlier, most terrible ones." —James Poniewozik, TIME

"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!!!" —Tara Ariano, Previously.TV

"It’s strange for a journalist to say a jury is the ultimate arbiter of truth, that once the verdict comes down, there are no more questions to be asked. Furthermore, it’s a callous thing to say to a woman who just told him that she, like so many rape victims, will never get a trial because her story isn’t quite right, because she drank too much tequila, because the accused man says she wanted it — like UVA’s Jackie, who went to the administration with a story of gang rape and was offered mediation." —Ariane Lange, BuzzFeed

"But at the center of the episode's problems was one terrible idea: Aaron Sorkin isn't sure rape victims should be naming their rapists, because somebody somewhere might miss out on a medical school scholarship." — Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

"Aaron Sorkin doesn’t understand who the victim is. He doesn’t understand how empathy works. And he, as a rich, powerful, white man in the United States, doesn’t understand that he is among the most privileged people in the world. 'Oh Shenandoah' tries to assuage our ill-feelings about rape by rampantly defending the rights of famous people from paparazzi, because the complaints of Erin Andrews demand to be heard and validated. This wouldn’t be so troubling if we hadn’t just seen an anonymous college student tracked to her dorm room through rudimentary journalistic stalking and questioned about her rape before being told she shouldn’t tell the world who violated her. Sorkin thinks that women need protecting, especially if they have a target on their back. What he fails to realize is that every woman has a target on her back." —Libby Hill, A.V. Club

"There’s bad episodes of The Newsroom, and then there’s last night’s “Oh Shenandoah,” the kind of down-in-flames wreck that sets the Internet to red alert. Even if you don’t watch the show, the blowback to the show’s penultimate episode was so universal that you might be clicking on reactions just to figure out what went so spectacularly wrong. A lot of the scorn stems from a central plot dealing with a college student’s allegations of unprosecuted campus rape. But the show’s indelicate approach to that plot wasn’t the only thing that left me aghast. “Oh Shenandoah” was Aaron Sorkin soapiness dialed to unwatchable extremes, coupled with a series of grating, one-sided lectures on the dangers of new media." — David Sims, The Atlantic

"Since its premiere, The Newsroom has been criticized for using the 20/20 hindsight baked into its premise to correct the mistakes of journalists — not only does the show’s setting in the recent past allow it to say what reporters should have done, it makes the characters completely impotent; incapable of changing history. But the show is never as incisive as it wants to be or thinks it is, precisely because it only ever addresses events, even important ones, once public opinion has cooled and set a bit. It can never make immediate, vital arguments, and it isn’t equipped to do so.

That’s why there could not have been a worse time for this episode, airing in a week when there really are questions about ethics in journalism, and about how we cover sexual assault and rape in the media." — Eric Thurm, Grantland

"The most believable aspect of this scenario is that a pompous male journalist would choose to victim-blame a woman who was raped and attempt to justify it with the weak defense that it's about journalistic ethics. (Sound familiar?) The least believable aspect of this scenario is that this woman would entertain Don's bullshit beyond the first denial. Or perhaps she would, but the way the dialogue played out was perfectly shoehorned into Sorkin's apparent notion that laws on the books are more credible than witness testimony, without accounting for how those rules are distorted and applied selectively in an unjust society." — Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Jezebel