The HBO program The Newsroom deals with many issues, one of them being the way that “old media” is reacting to “new media”. In her article pertaining to the most recent episode of The Newsroom, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd ends it with a description of a character death.
At the end of Sunday’s episode, Charlie Skinner, The Newsroom‘s moral dad played by Sam Waterston, has a heart attack and croaks, hitting his head on a desk near a computer on the way down—a symbolic sledgehammer that was meant to parallel the way the “internet” is “killing” “real journalism,” or something.
Skinner is a character who is a member of the old media. He fights tooth and nail with younger reporters and especially with the new owner over the direction the media is going. Some of the other old media types have also been seen to fight the new media at varying levels and with varying levels of frustration with the use of the internet and sites like twitter. Often some very good points are brought up in their hesitance to fully embrace the tools that the internet provides. Often times these characters are hesitant to embrace any of those tools. Shepherd seems to take this as the show itself sending the message “old media good, new media bad”. But if Sorkin is Dr. Frankenstein and the show his monster, I believe that a lot is overlooked with that simplistic view of television.
There are people in this world who are old media. Those people do drag their feet when it comes to embracing the new tools that the internet gives us. In order for The Newsroom to be a credible show, if it has old media types working for ACN (the news company featured in the show) then it has to portray them as old media types. When I watch the show (as I discussed on Liberal Dan Radio tonight) I don’t view the show as lauding old media as being king and scoffing at new media. I see a message that says “these old media guys really need to get with the program or they will fall behind”. Real life has flawed people and as such any show is going to have to have flawed characters in order to be realistic.
Which brings me to the initial subject of the article written in Jezebel, an article not on old vs new media but on rape, rape culture, and how The Newsroom handled a case of rape in this of all weeks where Rolling Stone fumbled the ball and showed horrible journalistic practices in its covering of rapes on UVA. A criticism that Shephard has is that the show was “poorly timed” as if Sorkin and HBO chose to release this episode in the middle of the Rolling Stone controversy. I think it may be a matter of dumb luck, be that luck good or bad.
This particular episode had a sub plot of the producer, Don, and his assignment by his new boss to go investigate a campus website that was created to expose rapists on campus. He was to find the creator of the website and one of her rapists and put them on camera together in studio. Don obviously is uncomfortable with this idea well before “the scene” that has caused much ire on the internet. But eventually Don is able to do some “old school” “detective work” and find the creator of the website. (Another criticism by Shephard is that Mary calling Don’s detective work “old school” was Sorkin trying to make Mary look bad. I took it as Mary being sarcastic to Don. But to each their own I suppose.)
Shephard is critical of every single bit of this scene. Another issue she brings up is with how Don refers to the rape that is alleged by the female character as a “kind of rape”. This of course is not what a rape victim would want to hear. And of course a reporter asking a victim of rape about her rape should not belittle the rape. However, Don is nervous and flawed and does not behave in a manner in which the perfect reporter would behave in that circumstance.
Another part of the show discussion has Mary (the victim) stating to Don “The law is plainly failing rape victims. That must be obvious to you”. His response is:
“It is, but in fairness, the law wasn’t built to serve victims … I’ve heard two competing stories, one from a very credible woman who has no reason to lie, the other from a guy I judge to be a little sketchy who has every reason to lie, and I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy… I believe I’m morally obligated. I’m the guy who goes around saying OJ’s not guilty because a jury said so.”
Is that the best way to respond? It is correct to say that the law wasn’t built to serve victims. Ben Franklin once stated that it would be better for 100 guilty people to go free than have one innocent person locked up. We have an adversarial system of justice that should make it difficult to put people away in prison. Now, do you explain this to a rape victim who is visibly upset? That doesn’t seem to be the ideal thing to say under the circumstances. Perhaps he could have worded the later part better? Maybe instead of saying “and I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy” he could have said “while I do not believe you are lying I also feel morally obligated to treat people as innocent until proven guilty in a court of law”. This might be a better way to put it, and it might not be. But, again, Don is nervous and flawed and does not behave in a manner in which the perfect reporter would behave in that circumstance.
And I think you see my point here. People are not perfect. If placed in that situation I guarantee you that I would be fumbling around and that I would not say the right things. I would stumble. I would make mistakes. I would misword things in ways that I would realize later were horribly stupid. But that is how life works. People like Don exist today. And a show cannot be taken seriously if it ignores that such people existed today when presenting such a situation. Had Don not been the fumbling idiot who is condescending to this victim, it would seem less real. Don has been a fumbling idiot when it comes to other interactions with women as well. If he all of a sudden starts acting perfect around women, that would be going out of character. And the biggest mistake that The Newsroom could make would be to have all of its characters be perfect people in a perfect way.
Sometimes the best example to give in a tv show is to show what not to do in a given situation. I cringed when he said “kind of rape”. I cringed when he said he was “obliged to believe the sketchy guy”. And that is the point. We are supposed to cringe at such things. We are supposed to see them go down and say “wow, that didn’t go well”. We can then use our hindsight in this fictitious universe where nobody was actually hurt and show the flaws that exist in society. We can look at the flawed characters and say “look guys, that is what you look like when you act this way towards victims of rape… STOP IT!”. That The Newsroom has such flawed characters in it does not make the show disdainful of women. It makes the show more realistic. It makes the show more credible. It also opens the door for good conversations on how we all should be treating persons who come forward as victims of rape.