The Newsroom: “Oh Shenandoah”

(Episode 3.05)

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The Newsroom: “Oh Shenandoah”

I’m beginning to wonder if Aaron Sorkin is trying to destroy every ounce of goodwill that he might have accrued thanks to his sterling work on The West Wing, and his fine movie scripts. Apparently if Studio 60 wasn’t going to be the program that ruined his career in TV, he was going to use The Newsroom to do it.

Let’s not waste a lot of time on this subject because, believe you me, there are already think pieces galore ripping this episode apart, and for very, very, very good reasons. In the course of investigating a story about a Princeton student who was raped by two men, and now has a website allowing women like her to post their stories, Don expressed that he is “morally obligated” to believe the rapist. Why? Because apparently he can’t stop thinking that someone might use that site to falsely accuse someone of sexual assault, as an act of revenge, equating it with the “RevengePorn” site that posted naked pictures of Sloan online.

That’s right: as much he supposedly wants to believe the shaken young woman he’s talking to, he’s going to side with the man who lost his admission to Stanford Medical School because of this website. And even though she’s willing to tell her story on the air—and face off against one of the men who assaulted her to boot—Don begs her not to, letting her know that she wouldn’t have due process, and the procedures available to her that she would in a courtroom. If that weren’t enough, even with her permission, the newsman kills the story by telling his boss he couldn’t find her. Keep quiet, ladies… someone is being noble right now.

It’s a dangerous and stupid thing to put on television, especially on a network like HBO that maintains a reputation for funding and airing thought-provoking and challenging documentaries on issues such as these. Sorkin practically encourages women to keep their mouths shut about sexual assaults and rapes, until the gatekeepers determine that it’s okay to speak up, or there’s irrefutable evidence of such a crime. What would be the result of that? Jion Ghomeshi would still be making life a living hell for women at CBC, and physically abusing the women who deign to go home with him; Bill Cosby might get away with forcing himself on countless women, and the University of Virginia would still be turning their backs on the culture of rape and assault taking place on their grounds.

I’ll give Sorkin this much: those scenes with Don and the Princeton rape victim were so appalling that they made the rest of the appalling drivel in this week’s episode seem almost palatable. I could almost stomach Will having a conversation with the ghost of his father from a jail cell, the big romantic moment between Maggie and Jim, and—the coup de grâce of this mess—Charlie’s heart attack in the middle of the newsroom. All of it pales in comparison to Sorkin’s misguided and potentially toxic “ethics lesson.”

Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.