Aaron Sorkin Responds to ‘Newsroom’ Writer’s Complaint on Rape Storyline

Aaron Sorkin Responds 'Newsroom' Writer's Complaint
Theo Wargo/Getty

As “The Newsroom” marches onward to its third season and series finale, controversy has arisen outside of the show’s content, as one of the show’s writers, Alena Smith, has said that creator Aaron Sorkin kicked her out of the writer’s room for questioning the campus rape storyline of this Sunday’s episode. However, Sorkin responded on Monday, saying Smith was happy with the final draft of the script.

The episode, “On Shenandoah,” featured Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski), a producer on the show’s nightly news program, debating with a Princeton student, Mary (Sarah Sutherland), who runs an anonymous website where victims of sexual assault can tell their stories. The plot generated controversy over social media, especially given the recent blow-up surrounding Rolling Stone’s UVA campus rape story, and its subsequent retraction and apology.

After the episode aired, Smith tweeted the following:

Sorkin responded to Smith’s tweets Monday, in a lengthy statement to Mediaite. Sorkin admitted that he “excused her from the room,” but said that following the argument, “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.”

See the full statement below:

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.

The final episode of “The Newsroom” airs at 9 p.m. on Dec. 14 on HBO.

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  1. Most of the time, blacklisting is unwarranted and petty. In this case, it will be completely justified. I’m glad that this happened early in her career, so that she didn’t stifle other writers’ rooms along the way.

  2. Would kill for her job says:

    She could have tastefully opened a dialogue on Twitter by tweeting something like: “I am proud to be a writer on The Newsroom. I understand some of the reaction to the rape storyline and I welcome any and all healthy debate. I’d love to hear your reactions, so let’s discuss. Use hashtag #Newsroom.”

    Instead, she’s earned herself the badge of “Internet Famous” for the next 5 hours. Then she will be forgotten.

    Of course, if she keeps up the self-promotion she can maybe book speaking gigs and blog interviews for the rest of her life as “the writer on the Newsroom who was kicked out when she objected to the rape storyline,” which is just as fulfilling as a writing career in television, right? And something to be proud of.

    Kudos, kid!

  3. Jody says:

    Alena just successfully cast herself as ” Halie” in this little drama. Maybe Gwaker will. give her a Try.

  4. Carla says:

    Princeton is misspelled in first mention in this story.

  5. Kevin says:

    Alena Smith won’t ever work for a high-profile project again. Stupid, stupid, stupid move. She just entered Megan Fox/Jim Carrey/Katherine Heigel territory. NEVER bite the hand that feeds you.

  6. Willow says:

    Just an unprofessional twit who will never work on a quality writing team again. Maybe Ryan Murphy will hire her.

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