The Newsroom S3 Ep5: Oh Shenandoah

This week on The Newsroom … Don wrestles with his moral obligations. Jim reveals his feelings towards Maggie. And Charlie is pushed to breaking point.

Image: HBO

This week’s headlines

People don’t read this with the expectation of it being true!

52 days after Will was jailed for contempt of court, Lucas Pruit‘s new ACN is becoming a reality.

The network has risen from fourth to third in the ratings, second in the target demographic and their average viewer age has dropped by three years. But it is achieving this by implementing Pruit’s citizen journalism vision: running promos with the hashtag #uracn, seeking interviews with Lady Gaga’s manager and running an app, ACNgage, which allows anyone to share the locations of celebrities.

After Sloan ruthlessly takes down Bree Dorrit, Neal‘s temporary replacement and the creator of ACNgage, live on News Night, a seething Pruit demands that she and Mac are fired. Charlie refuses, collapses and dies from a heart attack, leaving a tearful Mac to break the news to Will as he is released from jail.

The B-block

It is a huge, dangerous, scary-as-s*** mistake to convene your own trial in front of a TV audience where there’s no due process, no lawyers, no discovery, no rules of procedure, no decisions on admissible evidence, threat of perjury or any of the things we do to ensure an innocent person isn’t destroyed. The law can acquit, the internet never will. The internet is used for vigilantism every day but this is a whole new level and if we go there we are truly f***ed.

Charlie sends Don to Princeton to chase a story about a student who has set up an anonymous website outing two male students who she alleges raped her on campus.

Don tracks down the website’s creator, Mary. He tells her that ACN wants to put her in the studio along with one of the rapists, who denies her allegations, because a trial-by-TV will boost ratings with younger viewers.

If you face off with the guy you’ve accused on TV, it’s going to be a lawless food fight with irreversible, irretrievable consequences. Teams will be formed, you will be slut-shamed and you won’t get the justice you’re looking for.

Despite pleading with her not to go through with it and the certainty that one day an innocent man will find his life ruined by it, she resolves to go ahead. However, back in the newsroom as Charlie rants against Mac and Sloan, he tells him he was unable to find her.

Do your piles of cash protect you from this interview, in which I’m intentionally stripping you of your dignity? And, by the way, I’ve managed to do it without lying once.

After the obnoxious Bree rebuffs Don and Sloan’s request to shut down ACNgage, Sloan panders to his ego by inviting him on to News Night to talk about the app.

There she systematically trashes both Bree and his app as encouraging celebrity-stalking sociopaths and lacking in journalistic vetting process. She then points out factual inaccuracies in reporting before swatting aside his argument that being rich means it’s okay to violate their privacy. This precipitates the angry showdown with Pruit in which Charlie suffers his fatal heart attack.

Maggie and Jim are at Moscow airport pursuing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who they believe to be boarding a flight for Havana. However, after buying a honeymooning couple’s tickets, Snowden doesn’t show on the flight. Jim ignores Maggie’s plea for him to call Hallie, reveals his true feelings for her and the pair share a kiss.

Whistle-blower Lilly Hart commits suicide outside the Department of Justice, prompting Rebecca Halliday and Assistant Attorney General Barry Lasenthal to make a deal to release Will from jail. In his cell, Will argues with his wife-beating cellmate about his elitist snobbery and his and Mac’s ‘mission to civilise’. When Will is finally released we discover that this was merely a mental projection of his own father.

Observations

Oh boy. This should have been a poignant episode, as we watched the effect of Pruit’s changes dismantling everything that the News Night team’s ‘mission to civilise’ represents, leading directly to Charlie’s demise (and the magnificent Sam Waterston, as he has done all season, taking Charlie out in a wave of righteous indignation).

However, since this episode aired in the US on Sunday night, there has been a furore about the Princeton rape sub-plot, and in particular Don’s claim that he is morally obligated to side with an alleged rapist whose story he doesn’t believe over that of the victim whom he does believe. The Aaron Sorkin haters have had a field day with this. At best, it feels misjudged.

Here’s the full transcript of the key exchange. Judge for yourself.

Mary: The law is plainly failing rape victims, that must be obvious to you.

Don: That is but, in fairness, the law wasn’t built to serve victims.

Mary: In fairness?

Don: I know.

Mary: Do you believe me?

Don: Do I believe you? Of course I do.

Mary: Seriously.

Don: I’m not here on a fact-finding mission.

Mary: I’m just curious. Be really honest.

Don: Okay. I’ve heard two competing stories. One from a very credible woman who, as far as I can see, 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.

Mary: This isn’t a courtroom. You’re not legally obligated to presume innocence.

Don: I believe I’m morally obligated.

It’s a difficult position to defend but there is a grain of truth in what Don says – that it’s not the media’s role to fan the flames of an internet-enabled lynch mob. Whether he’s morally obligated to take the accused’s side is less clear-cut – could ACN not adopt a neutral position?

What he is 100% right about is that, even if News Night had played the role of a neutral arbiter in an on-air debate, it would only have raised the temperature without moving the story on.

Sorkin’s dialogue in this sub-plot – which, to his credit, he affords considerable space to allow Don and Mary to explore both sides of the argument – is unquestionably heavy-handed. And the episode’s transmission comes at a time when the whole issue of campus rape is an open wound given Rolling Stone‘s recent publication of an eerily similar story concerning an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, where subsequent investigations have found glaring discrepancies in the accuser’s story.

It’s a shame, because one poorly judged line of dialogue derails not just a worthwhile sub-plot but the entire episode. And it’s compounded by the fact that, despite Mary’s resolve to go ahead with the interview, Don deprives her of her agency by pretending he was unable to find her as he, Mac and Sloan rally around Charlie in an act that is 50% mutiny and 50% intervention. It’s not a direct act against her, but the end result is the same.

Incidentally, I know Charlie mentioned not having the energy to fight Pruit any more last week, but did anyone else find his utter capitulation to his new boss difficult to swallow? I know he was trying to protect his people, but it just didn’t seem like the sort of thing Charlie Skinner would ever stoop to doing.

Everything else in this episode is overshadowed by the rape storyline – and it did feel odd that the series’ penultimate story should be dominated by a completely new story – but, in truth, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.

Sloan’s takedown of Bree forms the second prong of Sorkin’s twin attack on the perils of new media and citizen journalism, but it’s a far more enjoyable experience because Bree and his app represent everything we dislike about the intrusiveness and presumptiveness of social media neatly rolled into one obnoxious package, and because Sloan’s on-air evisceration of him is so perfect – a fine example of Sorkin’s writing at its most concise and incisive.

However, even though it’s easy to agree with Sorkin’s argument, it still feels like he’s trying too hard to ram it down the viewers’ throats. Having got the balance right in the earlier episodes of this season with a less heavy-handed and more self-deprecating approach, here he resorts to preaching, dragging viewers to his version of the truth rather than leading them there.

It’s also a little hard to believe that both Sloan and Mac, who approved her interview questions, would be so ready to commit virtual career suicide just to have a dig at their unlikable owner at the expense of one of his low-level flunkies. It was fun, though.

As for Jim and Maggie: enough, already. They can now be together. Let’s leave it at that, okay? It’s the romance no one is dying to see.

The Newsroom deserved a better and less controversial episode than this as its penultimate hour. It smacked of cramming too many ideas in and too much of Sorkin getting in one final punch at new media before walking off into the sunset. Hopefully next week’s finale will give us the send-off the series deserves.

And finally …

In passing, Charlie mentions the military takeover in Egypt and the NSA scandal, the latter leading into Jim and Maggie’s plot strand. Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow on 23rd June 2013 and, as portrayed in the episode, did have a seat booked to Havana. However, he was stopped and held in transit, and never boarded the flight.

Charlie also asks Mac to book in a slot with Lady Gaga’s manager after the pop star broke a long-standing Twitter silence to tweet “Let’s go DOMA. Supreme Court let’s make history & stand for MARRIAGE EQUALITY! #GetItDoneThisWeek #TheWhole WorldIsWatching” to her then 38 million followers on 24th June. Two days later the Supreme Court repealed the act, which allowed states to not recognise same-sex marriages.

Rating: 5/10

The Newsroom season 3 reviews

Trailer

3.1 Boston

3.2 Run

3.3 Main Justice

3.4 Contempt

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