Aaron Sorkin on 'Newsroom' Rape Storyline Flap: Debate Is Encouraged, Writer Broke Trust

Alena Smith tweets she tried to argue the arc in the penultimate episode of the HBO drama
HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the penultimate episode of The Newsroom, "Oh Shenandoah."]

Sunday's episode of HBO's Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom is shaping up to be quite controversial — and not because of its major character death.

During the hour, ACN producer Don (Thomas Sadowski) is assigned a story that the station's new ownership wanted: an interview with Mary (Sarah Sutherland), a Princeton student and rape victim who created a website on which rape victims can share their stories and name their attackers.

Read more Aaron Sorkin Reveals Depth of 'Newsroom' Angst

Don reacted strongly to the story. Don tracked down Mary and in a candid debate, the sympathetic producer begs her not to participate on the show. He confesses that he's trained to believe her alleged attacker and says that he needs to "ensure an innocent person [like the men potentially named on the site] isn't destroyed."

Newsroom writer Alena Smith took to her Twitter account late Sunday to voice her disdain for the storyline.

"As @emilynussbaum points out in her review of tonight's ep, you can't criticize Sorkin without turning into one of his characters," she wrote.

Read more 'Newsroom 'Star Talks Shocking Fate

"So when I tried to argue, in the writers' room, that we maybe skip the storyline where a rape victim gets interrogated by a random man..." she wrote, "I ended up getting kicked out of the room and screamed at just like Hallie would have for a 'bad tweet.' "

[Hallie is a Newsroom character who was fired earlier this season for sending a controversial tweet from the show's account.]

"I found the experience quite boring. I wanted to fight with Aaron about the NSA, not gender. I didn't like getting cast in his outdated role," Smith wrote.

The timing of Sunday's episode — filmed months ago — came as Bill Cosby's rape allegations continue to dominate the news as more alleged victims come forward, and as Rolling Stone's story about campus rape came under heavy fire.

In an emailed statement via his rep, Sorkin responded to Smith's tweets: 

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.

Dec. 8, 2:15 p.m. Updated with a statement from Aaron Sorkin

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