Jeff Daniels and co. in the Newsroom
  • Karen Ballard
  • Jeff Daniels and co. in the Newsroom

Sometimes art arrives after history has done its worst and tidies up. Other times art comes first with such an impact that history finally wanders in as a pallid imitation. Once in a while they show up together. Watching last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, I pictured history bucking and snorting as art clutched its mane, riding bareback.

The New York Times took note Tuesday. A story in the Arts section reported that creator Aaron Sorkin had created a plot “that hewed closely to the recent article in Rolling Stone magazine about an accusation of gang rape at the University of Virginia” The article caused a sensation, not least because the magazine has allowed that it was insufficiently vetted and might not be entirely true. The Newsroom had a college student who claimed she’d been gang raped at a Princeton eating club and then blown off by police creating a website where women can out their rapists. News producer Don Keefer has orders to get the student, along with a guy she’s accused by name, into the Atlantis Cable News studio so they can be interviewed together on camera. Keefer thinks it’s a terrible idea. (Is he remembering the “How about a hug?” moment between Gary Dotson and Cathleen Webb on CBS in 1985?)

But he also thinks the website is a terrible idea, even though he finds the woman student credible and sympathetic and the eating-club guy a lot less so. Sooner or later, Keefer tells her, “the site is going to clobber an innocent person.” That’s too hypothetical for the student—she’s innocent here and now and so are the other raped women the authorities blew off. Reported the Times, “Mr. Sorkin presented an argument that some critics found disparaged the credibility of rape victims.”

I don’t think so. I don’t think Sorkin laid a finger on his rape victim’s credibility—or tried to. What he did—and this is Sorkin being Sorkin—is burnish the nobility of Don Keefer by having him argue for an abstruse principle he knows is vital even though he can’t expect the laity to know it too. It’s the same nobility that finds anchor Will McAvoy in jail for contempt because he refuses to name a source even after he finds out the source is dead. We don’t expect you to appreciate what we stand for because you don’t even understand what we stand for is the message Sorkin delivers on behalf of the handful inside his sanctuaries to the multitudes beyond. He delivered the same message from the West Wing. His characters are flawed through and through, but ultimately they’re paragons. It’s why audiences who don’t love his shows despise them.

The terrible idea Keefer hopes the woman student will refuse to cooperate with (but she’s grateful for the opportunity) was the brainstorm of ACM’s new boy-wonder owner, Lucas Pruitt, who has billions of dollars and an infatuation with new media and crowd-sourced journalism that sends chills down the newsroom’s collective spine. Where have we seen this before? Generally, in the nightmares of a generation or two of broken-down old MSM employees.

But specifically, in the recent retching and heaving at the New Republic. At the age of 28, Chris Hughes (a Facebook cofounder) bought the 75100-year-old journal two years ago, and in September he installed Guy Vidra (from Yahoo) as chief executive, telling the staff he’d “instantly connected with [Vidra’s] vision.”

Last week, the top two editors, Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier, resigned. Vidra then said in a staff memo that he intended to turn TNR into a “vertically integrated digital media company” and assured the staff the restructuring would bring about “improved products across all platforms.” That included the print product, which would trim its publication schedule from 20 to 10 issues a year. A couple dozen New Republic editorial staffers and contributing writers promptly quit.

The Newsroom, of course, was plotted long before any of this headline news occurred, and so far no one has told Pruitt what they think of him by resigning. But at the close of Sunday’s episode, news director Charlie Skinner does collapse of a heart attack and die.