A Newsroom Writer Says Aaron Sorkin Yelled at Her Over Rape Plot

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As if The Newsroom wasn’t already patronizing enough, the show spent its penultimate episode mansplaining how the media should handle accusations of sexual assault. One of The Newsroom characters is lionized for siding with what he calls a “sketchy” alleged rapist over a rape victim.

Critics say that head writer Aaron Sorkin went too far, and, as it turns out, at least one of Sorkin’s writers agrees. Alena Smith took to Twitter on Sunday night to say that Sorkin kicked her out of the writers’ room when she objected to the rape subplot:

For those who didn’t watch the episode, here’s a summary of the objectionable storyline:

A college student named Mary tells ACN producer Don that she was raped, reported the rape to both the college’s administration and the police and that nothing will be done about it due to lack of evidence. She creates a website where women can anonymously report rapes on campus in order to shame their assailants and warn other women about these men. (Though the show does not address this statistic, at least one study has found that 90% of men who rape will rape again and that perpetrators will assault six people on average.)

The line that launched a thousand think pieces this morning came when Don is asked which person he believes: the victim or the alleged perpetrator? Don concedes that Mary seems credible and would have no reason to lie and that her alleged assailant seems “sketchy” and does have motivation to lie. But he concludes, “I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy.”

MORE: Listen Here, Internet Girl: The Newsroom Rapesplains It All

It’s an absurd statement. As TIME’s Jim Poniewozik writes, “Don’s not saying that he can’t know whom to believe yet. He’s not saying that he doesn’t have hard proof…He’s saying that, lacking proof, he has to affirmatively believe the story of one of his subjects–a less credible one–over the other. Forget journalists–many men’s rights movement advocates don’t even go that far.”

Don encourages Mary not to participate in an ACN segment in which she would be required to debate with her rapist—not because that would be traumatic and horrifying but because Don thinks it’s inevitable that Mary’s site will be used to make false rape accusations and ruin innocent men’s lives.

The question of false accusations is particularly prescient given the current debate over a Rolling Stone story on sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus and a subsequent apology from the magazine for “discrepancies” in the story. Only about 6% of rape allegations are fabricated, according to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). False reports only hurt real rape victims because journalists and law enforcement begin to doubt their stories.“Overwhelmingly, victims are telling the truth,” Scott Berkowitz, the president of RAINN, recently told TIME. “But by all means, journalists should ask all the questions they need to ask in order to get the facts.”

But instead of finding the facts, Don skirts the story altogether. It’s easy to see why Smith objected to the scene.


On Monday afternoon, The Newsroom’s Aaron Sorkin responded to the objections raised by Smith with a long statement:

Let me take a moment to say that I understand that the story in last night’s episode (305—”Oh Shenandoah”) about Don trying to persuade a Princeton student named Mary (Sarah Sutherland) not to engage in a “Crossfire”-style segment on his show has catalyzed some passionate debate this morning. I’m happy to hear it.

It catalyzed some passionate debate in our writers room too. Arguments in the writers room at The Newsroom are not only common, they’re encouraged. The staff’s ability to argue with each other and with me about issues ranging from journalistic freedom vs. national security to whether or not Kat Dennings should come back and save the company is one of their greatest assets and something I look for during the hiring process. Ultimately I have to go into a room by myself and write the show but before I do I spend many days listening to, participating in and stoking these arguments. As with any show, I have to create a safe environment where people can disagree and no one fears having their voice drowned out or, worse, mocked.

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.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com