Joe Paterno's Son Called Aaron Sorkin After Watching 'The Newsroom'

Aaron Sorkin

The show's aspirational handling of Gabrielle Giffords' shooting prompted thanks from the family of the coach, whose death was prematurely reported by CBS.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Sorkin's Paterno Call: After the July 15 episode of HBO's The Newsroom (which featured an emotional plotline about the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), Giffords' husband, NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, sent Aaron Sorkin an e-mail to express his appreciation for the sensitivity in which the writer portrayed the attempted assassination of the Arizona congresswoman that claimed the lives of six people and injured 19 others.

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"He was describing what it was like being in their living room watching the show together. For him, it was a very, very moving experience," Sorkin tells THR. "In that instance, he obviously had a much more personal connection to what was happening on the screen than the average viewer; it meant the world to me."

But that wasn't the only feedback from the episode, in which characters struggled whether to report NPR's claim that Giffords had died after several major networks announced her death. Sorkin also heard from Jay Paterno, son of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. "We never touched [Jerry] Sandusky or Paterno on the show," explains Sorkin of his surprising outreach.

Joe Paterno's death was reported 12 hours before the legendary coach died (amid an ongoing sexual-abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Sandusky). A Penn State-focused student-run news site reported that Paterno had died on the evening of Jan. 21, 2012, and major media outlets (including quickly aggregated the story.

Within 15 minutes of its initial reporting, Paterno's son Scott took to Twitter to deny the false claims and continued asking for people to keep the coach in their prayers. The following day, a family spokesperson announced Paterno's actual death on Jan. 22, 2012.

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When Jay Paterno reached out to Sorkin, the showrunner said his note was to express gratitude for the way the series addressed the importance of the news media's responsibility when reporting a person's death -- and specifically Thomas Sadoski's character line: "A doctor pronounces her dead. Not the news."

Says Sorkin, "That was a special moment for me, too."