‘The Newsroom’ Mirrors Our Real-Life Journalism Dilemmas in Real Time

It’s starting to get eerie how relevant the show has become to current issues

Last Updated: December 8, 2014 @ 3:07 PM

I’m not the only person to notice that Aaron Sorkin‘s “The Newsroom” — by accident or design — is grappling this season with the ethical issues that are playing out among real-life journalists at the exact same time as they are playing on the TV screen.

But it’s starting to get eerie. Just days after Rolling Stone had to backtrack on its massive J’Accuse about a rape at the University of Virginia, the show’s Sunday night episode dealt with the journalistic consequences of reporting campus rape in the media.

News Director Don sought out a Princeton student who claimed she’d been raped and created a website where female students could anonymously report rape and name their attackers. His role was to convince the student not to go on television, and to reconsider her website which — in his words — “is going to clobber an innocent person and there is no chance that it won’t.”

Stipulated: Sorkin is far from perfect. He has a seriously anachronistic view of the role the Internet plays in contemporary journalism, understanding only the detrimental impact of a flattened information landscape without grasping its benefits.

But journalists continue to love to hate this show while rejecting its focus on the very issues that journalism needs to grapple with, now. This episode attracted harsh commentary by the likes of Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker, who said Sorkin was arguing that “the idealistic thing to do is not to believe” the rape victim’s story.

James Poniewozik of Time said, “Its arguments about whom to ‘believe’ in the case of rape accusations were terrible. Its arguments about reporting said accusations were terrible. Its reliance on preachy strawman arguments was terrible.”

It’s all terrible I guess, except that those reviews came out before the Rolling Stone article was exposed as one-sided and poorly vetted (or actually, apparently not vetted at all). The risks of airing and litigating rape accusations in the media because the courts are not capable or because evidence is insufficient, just came crashing home. The important cause of preventing rape on campus has been dealt a terrible blow by the publication of an unreliable story in Rolling Stone, creating a precedent that will undermine credible stories in the future.

The anti-rape cause is not the only one dealt a blow. There is also journalistic credibility. This week the fallout will continue. I would be surprised if magazine managing editor Will Dana does not resign. The magazine will have a hard enough time recovering without him, much less with him.

The rape issue is only one hyper-relevant journalistic issue that Sorkin is addressing this season. I don’t know how my journalistic colleagues can think “The Newsroom” has “fallen apart,” as Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur tweeted. BJ Novack plays the evil bazillionaire who is looking to turn the network into a “vertically integrated digital media company”… oh wait, no that’s what Chris Hughes is doing over at The New Republic.

The media pile-on over “The Newsroom” has always struck me as ridiculous, but as we watch buyouts galore at The New York Times and layoffs at USA Today, the collapse of the New Republic and the public square redefined by Twitter, it’s even odder.

I for one am grateful that Aaron Sorkin cares enough to apply his gifted pen to the dilemmas facing journalists today, and to the challenges facing legacy media in the digital age.

Let’s not forget to watch that finale next week.