CNN Defends Campus Rape Movie That Its College Critics Call "Inaccurate," "Misleading"

The Hunting Ground
Courtesy of Radius-TWC

As criticism mounts against 'The Hunting Ground,' set to air Nov. 22, director Kirby Dick tells THR: "We've really touched a nerve."

Amid a growing controversy involving questions of accuracy and fairness, the makers of The Hunting Ground, a documentary indictment of campus sexual assaults, are defending the film, which is set to air on CNN on Nov. 22.

Florida State University, where one of the cases depicted in the documentary occurred, has asked the news network not to air the film and has produced a detailed critique of what it alleges are instances of inaccuracy and unfairness that depart from standard journalistic practice.

In response, CNN — which also will air a roundtable discussion of campus sexual assaults after it airs the film — said it is "proud to provide a platform for a film that has undeniably played a significant role in advancing the national conversation about sexual assault on college campuses."

"We are confident that both the film and our extensive associated coverage give this important issue the full and fair treatment it deserves," a spokeswoman for the network said in a statement.

The network also said the version of the film it will air this coming Sunday has been updated from the earlier cut that Florida State and its advocates have seen and to which they have reacted.

CNN officials believe their broadcast version of the film takes into account the concerns of the film’s critics. An earlier cut of The Hunting Ground — the work of director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering — has been shown on college campuses across the country and has been endorsed by the Obama White House as part of its national initiative to combat the problem.

The film includes detailed accounts of campus rape from women at various U.S. universities, including Harvard University, Florida State University and the University of North Carolina.

Dick told THR: "It’s significant these powerful schools, who aren’t used to being criticized, are coming after the film so hard — it means we’ve really touched a nerve and are shining a light on something they don’t want seen and haven’t allowed to be seen for decades. It’s what documentary films can do better than any other medium."

The Hunting Ground debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was released in theaters by Radius-TWC in February and grossed $406,000 during its theatrical run. It has also been submitted for consideration for a feature documentary Oscar. Last spring, FSU along with Los Angeles crisis management firm G.F. Bunting + Co. sent CNN a memo outlining concerns about the film's accuracy.

In an online statement posted this week, Florida State president John Thrasher stepped up his criticism of the film and CNN.

"It is inexcusable for a network as respected as CNN to pretend that the film is a documentary rather than an advocacy piece," he wrote. "Yet with its co-production and airing of it, CNN is putting its imprimatur on a film that falls far short of the basic reporting standards we expect from a cable TV news outlet that calls itself 'the most trusted name in news.' "

Instead, Thrasher said, "CNN viewers will hear an incomplete and misleading description of the university’s thorough Title IX investigation, handed to an independent judge — a former state Supreme Court justice — who concluded there was not enough evidence to support the complainant’s allegations of sexual assault."

He added: "We simply could not let stand an inaccurate or incomplete picture of the university’s conduct."

Thrasher wrote that, for these reasons, he declined CNN’s invitation to participate in its roundtable discussion that is airing in conjunction with the film.

In his letter on the FSU website, Thrasher compared The Hunting Ground to Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia fraternity rape story. "If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason," he wrote, adding that it's been less than seven months since Rolling Stone retracted its story amid "revelations that it took a victim’s story at face value without getting the other side or checking the details with other sources, including the accused." He further added: "We believe the same is true with The Hunting Ground."

In response, the filmmakers said, "We are outraged by this comparison. Not a single case that we featured in the film has been discredited as being untrue and even President Thrasher hasn't asked us to retract any piece of the film. He just didn't want the film to to be seen because it criticizes FSU for their handling of a sexual assault case."

On Nov. 19, law professors at Harvard, where another of the film’s documented incidents took place, attacked the filmmakers’ accuracy in a widely publicized joint letter that focused on the victim’s inebriation and the absence of violence in the assault.

The professors wrote in a letter that was posted on The Harvard Law Record website that the film gave the impression that the accused student "like others accused in the stories featured in the film, is guilty of sexual assault by force and the use of drugs on his alleged victims, and that he, like the others accused, is a repeat sexual predator."

The professors, including prominent faculty members Jeannie C. Suk, Laurence Tribe and Randall Kennedy, noted that there have been "extensive investigations and proceedings" examining the case against the student — at Harvard Law School, in a criminal case before the grand jury and in criminal trial before a jury.  

Throughout all the reviews, there was "never any evidence" that the student used force, they said.

Calling The Hunting Ground a "purported" documentary, the professors said the film provides "a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of a male Harvard law student who is accused of assault."

In statements sent to THR, filmmakers Dick and Ziering said the professors’ reference to "the 'inebriated' state of the women who are portrayed in the film is classic victim blaming and is exactly the kind of misogynistic, punitive and shaming attitude that helps perpetuate sexual assault on college campuses."

The filmmakers, who have posted a point-by-point refutation on their website, also said,"In many ways, the professors’ statement is a perfect example of what The Hunting Ground shows has been so common throughout higher education: institutional denial," they said.

This week, two emails from one of the film's producers, Amy Herdy, also circulated on the web. In them, she promises a friendly, non-confrontational interview with an alleged victim at FSU and describes the documentary project as a work of advocacy.

"We don’t operate the same way as journalists — this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side," Herdy wrote in one email to the woman’s aunt, who was serving as her attorney at the time. In the other email she informed the aunt that she was going to send the woman’s accused rapist an official request for an interview.

"I’m sure he will say no ... and then I want him to have a gap of a couple of weeks to get complacent because then we will ambush him," she wrote. Florida State and its crisis managers both contend that the emails should have demonstrated to CNN that The Hunting Ground’s filmmakers had not assembled their film within the boundaries of acceptable journalistic practice.

Florida State and the crisis managers contend that should preclude the documentary from airing on a news network. In response, the filmmakers and their team noted Tuesday that G.F. Bunting + Co’s website advertises "creative responses" to campus controversies involving alleged violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination.

The lengthy critique and singling out of the producer’s email, they said, is just a ploy to discredit the filmmakers and CNN while distracting attention from the failings of FSU to properly investigate and adjudicate student Erica Kinsman’s assault case.

The crisis consultancy’s president, Glenn F. Bunting, responded: "We know journalism and this isn’t it. The producers and CNN should not be surprised. FSU notified them months ago about the errors, distortions, mischaracterizations and glaring omissions in the film."

The filmmakers countered, "In spite of all the claims that FSU and the HSL professors have made against the film, no school has asked for a single specific retraction or change in the film."

Nov. 18, 6:00 p.m. Updated with additional responses from the filmmakers.