A lot of readers are asking my opinion of the recent Aaron Sorkin/Alena Smith flap. This is nice. Before I had a blog no one asked me about anything. So I’ll take a moment from plugging my book sale (the real reason for this blog) and weigh in with my thoughts.
In case you’re not familiar with the story. On last Sunday night’s episode of THE NEWSROOM there was a campus rape storyline that has angered many viewers. It’s also very timely considering the recent Cosby allegations and University of Virginia/ROLLING STONE debacle. But the episode was filmed months ago. The fact that Sorkin touched on a hotbed subject is actually coincidental. It happens. Real life events sometimes have the audacity to interfere with entertainment scheduling.
Alena Smith was a staff writer on the show and tweeted this week that she strongly disagreed with Sorkin’s position on the campus rape issue in the writers room, and when she wouldn’t stop pressing it Sorkin eventually asked her to leave.
Sorkin then issued a statement. Here is part of that response:
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.
And now Sorkin is taking more flack.
So where do I stand?
Well, first of all, I wasn’t in the room. I don’t know how long the debate was. I don’t know how contentious the debate was. I don’t know Alena Smith. I didn’t even know Aaron Sorkin had a writers room. I did see the episode however. I am still a loyal viewer of THE NEWSROOM. It makes me feel smart if I can understand half of what is going on. So I have no idea who was right or wrong. I’m clueless as to whether Sorkin gave her sufficient time or was dismissive, whether she had a myriad of points that required time to express or the same point repeated seven times. I don’t know if he warned her that she was in jeopardy of being tossed. I don’t know if ultimately in his rewrite Sorkin did change things as per her argument or ignored her completely.
But I side with Sorkin on this point: Confidentiality in the writers’ room is a must. And it’s more than just “you shouldn’t air your dirty laundry in public.” Writers need to feel safe. The best stories and moments come from real life, and in the quest for a good story a writer will often share the most intimate details of his or her life. It is a brave and courageous thing to do, to expose yourself for the sake of art. You truly cannot believe some of the shocking things writers will confess in those rooms – things they haven’t told their family, spouse, or shrink. I was once in a rewrite (and this was for a sitcom) where one of the baby writers revealed she had once been gangbanged. Holy shit! She’s telling me this and I didn’t even know her name?
When you join a writing staff it is understood that you honor confidentiality. That’s a cardinal rule. No exceptions. Heide Perlman was a staff writer on CHEERS. Her sister, Rhea, was in the cast. But we knew that nothing said in the room about Rhea or anybody would ever get back to her. And we all said NICE things.
But that’s the code and Alena broke it. Did she ultimately harm anybody? No. But it’s like Pete Rose gambling in baseball. After the Black Sox scandal in 1919 baseball determined that the one thing that could kill the game was if the public thought it was fixed. So there is a rule that players, managers, and coaches are forbidden to bet on baseball. They sign agreements to that effect. There are big signs posted in every major league clubhouse. When Pete was managing Cincinnati he broke that code. You could argue that he only bet on his team, but what about nights he didn’t bet? Wasn’t that sending the message that he didn’t think his team would win that night? Wouldn’t that be handy information to have if you’re a professional gambler?
Again, I’ve never worked for Aaron Sorkin. I might want to kill him if I did. I dunno. He might want to kill me if he were ever on my staff. But internal struggles have to remain internal. It’s necessary for the process.
Think of it this way: the writers' room is the ultimate Las Vegas. What happens in the room STAYS in the room.
Some suggest that Alena Smith will have trouble getting future staff work because of this. In some cases I’m sure that’s true. Would I ever hire her? If I thought she was the best writer for the position then yes I would. Really good writers are hard to find. And the confidentiality issue? I bet she never does that again.
Now the plug for my book: Last few days of the sale of THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60S). Only $.99, an 81% saving. Way more laughs to the penny than you'll ever find again. Here's where you go. But hurry!
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM