Why The Newsroom's Campus-Rape Episode Failed

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
When Aaron Sorkin sat down to write the campus-rape storyline in last night's episode of The Newsroom, could he have even imagined just how prescient the topic would be when the episode finally aired? In short: yes. Although it feels like we're currently embroiled in a storm of news stories on the subject of sexual assault — from Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus" to Bill Cosby allegations — the source material for the campus-assault storyline in "Oh Shenandoah" could have come from similar cases that were making headlines a year ago, such as the one involving Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.
No matter what headline inspired Aaron Sorkin, "Oh Shenandoah" tried to tackle sexual assault on college campuses, the ways in which school administrations deal with it, and the role a news network can play in covering an alleged sexual assault. It ultimately failed. Here's why.
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In this season, ACN has a new owner (B.J. Novak), who's interested in airing the type of viral news stories that capture a younger audience. With this in mind, he tasks Don (Thomas Sadoski) with tracking down a Princeton student named Mary (Sarah Sutherland) who has started a site where rape victims can name their attackers. He wants to see an on-air confrontation between an alleged rapist and his accuser.
When Don questions the segment, his boss Charlie (Sam Waterston) argues that it is an important story to cover. While Don ultimately agrees with this, he doesn't feel comfortable with the assigned approach.
"You interview the student with the website; you interview one of the guys that's accused," Charlie states, threatening to fire Don if he refuses.
So, Don goes to Princeton to interview Mary in her dorm room, and from the very moment they meet, it's clear that he's only there because his job is at stake. From Don's perspective, Mary is participating in Internet vigilante justice, urging other victims to tell their stories online. In allowing Mary to tell her story on the air — even though neither Princeton nor the police will substantiate her accusations — Don worries it will it legitimize the claims on her website and convince potential readers that all of the stories are somehow true, because they read them on a website sworn to justice-seeking.
Although he claims to believe Mary's story and says she was right to name her attacker, Don feels he's "morally obligated" to presume her attacker's innocence. You see, Don is extremely righteous and places his belief above all in our justice system and the creed that people are innocent until proven guilty. He worries about spurned women going on Mary's site and accusing exes of sexual assault — which will in turn hurt these men's prospects of medical school admission and other gainful employment. He's scared that he'll be accused of similar crimes, and goes so far as to worry about meeting with Mary in private because he was scared she would "cry rape."
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That's right, an adult producer of a national news program was afraid to meet with a college student who had accused two men of rape because he was concerned that it would end in her accusing him of rape, too. Don thinks Mary's site is just an online witch hunt, which overlooks any potential lack of evidence in favor of finger-pointing and presuming men are guilty before they are even sentenced for a crime. He goes so far as to compare it to revenge porn sites.
He tells Mary that going on ACN will result in slut-shaming — not the justice she's looking for. In the end, nothing Mary says to make her case even matters, because Don goes back to his boss and says that he never successfully tracked down Mary in the first place.
This is where The Newsroom's campus-rape plotline fails. It could have shed some light on how news organizations and journalists even begin to start reporting on a rape accusation and investigation. Instead, it leaned on the weak crux of Mary's website to attack her credibility and motives.
Rolling Stone's UVA story is unraveling because the writer didn't follow journalistic due process or try to speak with Jackie's alleged attackers or other sources to corroborate her story. The Newsroom skirted around this issue by shutting down the accuser's credibility due to a website she started in the name of helping other voiceless victims.
"Oh Shenandoah" was never going to be about unpacking the complex he said/she said/the university said/the police said of Mary's own sexual assault allegation. It put the nail in the coffin when Don was allowed to act as the ultimate arbiter of getting Mary's story swept off the air, under the rug, and silenced. At the end of the day, he kept his job and maintained his moral high ground.
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