The HBO series The Newsroom began in 2012 as a story about one man's mission to civilize — starting with the lowest-common-denominator churn of cable news. Like Mad Men, it is a workplace period piece about a white alpha male adrift in a swingin' new media landscape, only instead of taking place half a century ago, it takes place in the intellectual dark ages of roughly 2010-13. Its original targets were the kind of Fox News / Nancy Grace types usually more succinctly lambasted by Jon Stewart, but over the last couple of seasons, it — or rather its creator, Aaron Sorkin — has realized his common-decency princess is in another castle: the internet. And who's holding her hostage? A bunch of ladies, probably.
There was plenty of precedence for "Oh Shenandoah," last night's jaw-droppingly offensive campus rape episode. (Let us never forget the time Sorkin called writer Sarah Nicole Prickett "Internet Girl" for daring to be a female human with a Twitter account who did not love his new show.) And this season, we got a whole arc around Grace Gummer's character Hallie, who worked in social media for ACN before getting fired for an inflammatory tweet and subsequently going to work for fictional Gawker stand-in Carnivore. At Carnivore, Hallie is given pageview bonuses and encouraged to write about her personal life — specifically her "experience with Plan B," which her boyfriend Jim, one of the show's several noble-but-flawed nice guys, likens to a Penthouse letter.
Watching Jim and Hallie fight about journalistic integrity this season has been invigorating and infuriating, and as other critics have pointed out, Sorkin has gotten better at letting both sides of an argument get good and mostly intelligent points made; his strawmen have been more diligently stuffed. In the end, though, it's little more than a ruse — while the dialogue is more substantial, we're still meant to reach a final conclusion: Internet: Bad. And more specifically, Internet In The Hands of Women: Bad.
Sorkin's strawmen have been more diligently stuffed, but it's still a ruse
It's enough to make an Internet Girl feel like someone's switched out her birth control for crazy pills — which I'm sure is part of its gaslight-y intention. We hear Hallie and this week's campus rape victim Mary (played with perfectly righteous emotion by Veep's Sarah Sutherland) say all the right things and lay out all the same arguments that we've made in private and on our Twitter feeds. Yet the scene is not written from their point of view, but rather from that of the men who tell them that their methods are flawed and dangerous.
It makes you wish Sorkin had opted to write these women as the cartoonish harpies they would have been in the show's first season; it would be easier to laugh them off. To know that he hears these arguments and still feels the need to defend the status quo — that is, a media conversation dominated by old-school male voices — lays bare just how out of touch one of film and television's most prominent voices is with the intellectual ecosystem he has chosen to depict. That's why I could eventually laugh over the closing credits after the absurd death of Charlie Skinner, who was literally killed by new media. Because as angry as the episode made me and so many others, I knew it was coming from a man who on some level knew he was on the losing side of a cultural tide, and was helplessly furious about it.
Full disclosure: a personal friend of mine, Alena Smith, was a writer on this season of The Newsroom, and I knew this episode was coming as far back as June. I also knew that she was nearly fired for objecting to Sorkin's depiction of the Princeton campus rape cover-up. (Obviously, this story was broken and written long before Rolling Stone's UVA rape story debacle; it's just some kind of cosmic joke that the episode happened to air the exact same week.) The picture she painted of a red-faced, sputtering Sorkin screaming at her from the top of a stairwell both seemed like a scene straight from the very show they were arguing about and a portrait of an '80s man flailing in the face of a cultural shift.
As @emilynussbaum points out in her review of tonight's ep, you can't criticize Sorkin without turning into one of his characters.— Alena Smith (@internetalena) December 8, 2014
So when I tried to argue, in the writers' room, that we maybe skip the storyline where a rape victim gets interrogated by a random man...— Alena Smith (@internetalena) December 8, 2014
I ended up getting kicked out of the room and screamed at just like Hallie would have for a "bad tweet."— Alena Smith (@internetalena) December 8, 2014
In fairness, it's not as if every building block of Sorkin's argument is flawed; Don is correct to point out that a site for anonymously naming rapists would eventually be abused by someone at some point. But his solution is never to adapt, to find a way to handle the anarchy and anonymity of the internet and new media. And it's certainly never to respect a woman's desire to express herself in whatever way she feels is appropriate. Sorkin is clearly terrified of the internet and the floodgate it opens for non-white-male voices to be heard and taken seriously, and he truly, laughably believes that we'd be better off without it. For Sorkin, the most egregious crime is not the violation of a woman's body, but the violation of a man's right to benefit from the status quo — which conveniently includes the daily violation and silencing of women.
For Sorkin, the most egregious crime is the violation of a man's right to benefit from the status quo
You have to wonder how Sorkin would treat a web-bred firestorm like GamerGate — a story in which Internet Girls found themselves under continuous attack by a largely anonymous group of predominantly male commenters. How would he have dealt with the idea that female voices are still routinely threatened and attacked online? Chances are he would have brushed it aside, as it doesn't match up with his victim complex. But given his concerns with ethics in journalism, maybe we should be glad we'll never have the chance to find out.
Alena also butted heads with Sorkin over Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks, the most important news story of 2013, which got shunted into a C-plot on last night's episode. You will never guess what position Sorkin had on the leak, but if you were listening carefully last night, you could hear him muttering to himself via John Gallagher's Jim in a scene in the Moscow airport on the day Snowden was scheduled to fly to Cuba.
Jim: I want to ask him about when he decided to declare war on the United States.
Maggie: So I think you should let me get the ball rolling.
Jim: You and your whole generation's contempt for institutions.
It's a joke, but, you know, it's really not a joke. It's one last fist-shaking from an old man whose mostly unwatched ethical soap opera was more or less quietly shown the door by HBO. Honestly, we should pity Aaron Sorkin — he doesn't have a Twitter account or a BuzzFeed byline by which to influence public thought. All he has is one hour on Sunday on a premium cable network. And this time next week, he won't even have that.