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Aaron Sorkin sad that Newsroom writer’s objection to rape plot violated his privacy

Illustration for article titled Aaron Sorkin sad that Newsroom writer’s objection to rape plot violated his privacy

Last night, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom—a show that has frequently demonstrated how media should cover current events with the courage of hindsight—happened upon the opportunity to newsplain a story that was actually in the headlines. The penultimate episode of the series featured a subplot about a Princeton student who is raped by two men at a fraternity party, fortuitously—or given the way it worked out—very, very unfortunately timed with a similar tale that has unfolded at the University of Virginia. And in the end, the only viewers who may have been pleased with “Oh Shenandoah” were likely the editors of Rolling Stone, who can at least say that they weren’t the only ones accused of bungling a campus rape story this weekend.


Many, many reviewers (including our own) took the episode and Sorkin to task for the plotline, in which the female student—frustrated by the response to her allegations—sets up an anonymous website dedicated to outing campus rapists, and the male journalist sent to interview her argues with her that she shouldn’t do that, in addition to trying to talk her out of coming forward. In their discussion, he suggests that actually, it’s about ethics in journalism that he’s obligated to believe “a guy I judge to be a little sketchy who has every reason to lie.” And ultimately, he makes her decision for her by tanking the story.

For most of those critics, “Oh Shenandoah” was like seeing Sorkin—long accused of marginalizing females both fictional and real—acting out his most patronizing, patriarchal tendencies, and in the worst possible context. But this time those criticisms were joined by an actual Newsroom writer, Alena Smith, who said that her own similar objections were met by having Sorkin exercise a similar sort of control, kicking her out of the writers’ room.

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

I found the experience quite boring. I wanted to fight with Aaron about the NSA, not gender. I didn’t like getting cast in his outdated role

— Alena Smith (@internetalena) December 8, 2014

Since the outcry over the episode has grown louder, Sorkin has since responded with a statement in which he says he’s “happy” that it’s stirred such “passionate debate,” and acknowledging that the debate carried over into the writers’ room. Still, while he doesn’t dispute that Smith had issues with it—or that he asked her to leave—“ultimately I have to go into a room by myself and write the show,” so he made a similarly unilateral decision. And much as his fictional male journalist took umbrage with a female student using the Internet to expose her attackers, Sorkin is mostly upset that Smith used the Internet to violate the privacy of his writers’ room:

Alena Smith, a staff writer who joined the show for the third season, had strong objections to the Princeton story and made those objections known to me and to the room. I heard Alena’s objections and there was some healthy back and forth. After a while I needed to move on (there’s a clock ticking) but Alena wasn’t ready to do that yet. I gave her more time but then I really needed to move on. Alena still wouldn’t let me do that so I excused her from the room.

The next day I wrote a new draft of the Princeton scenes–the draft you saw performed last night. Alena gave the new pages her enthusiastic support. So I was surprised to be told this morning that Alena had tweeted out her unhappiness with the story. But I was even more surprised that she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writers room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private and intimate details of their lives in the hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. That’s what happens in writers rooms and while ours was the first one Alena ever worked in, the importance of privacy was made clear to everyone on our first day of work and was reinforced constantly. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.

Asked by Buzzfeed if she had any further response, Smith declined—shut down, as so many have been before, by an Aaron Sorkin monologue.

The Newsroom airs its final episode on Dec. 14, to the relief of many.