Is ‘The Hunting Ground’ documentary or propaganda?
“The Hunting Ground” documentary claims to show a shocking but accurate glimpse of sexual assault on American campuses. Documentaries, like studies, are often preludes to legislation. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is featured in the film, has introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a controversial bill that seems to marginalize police involvement in campus rape cases.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 15, 19 Harvard professors issued a joint press release, calling “The Hunting Ground” a “purported documentary” that is “propaganda” and “provides a seriously false picture … of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities.” The professors are rallying behind their student, Brandon Winston, who was not mentioned by name but clearly portrayed in the film as a rapist and repeated predator. Having closely reviewed the evidence, the professors are certain of his innocence. So are investigative journalists like Emily Yoffe, who penned an expose of the case in Slate, “How The Hunting Ground Blurs the Truth.” A grand jury was also convinced and took the unusual step of refusing to indict Winston on the most serious charges; a jury found him “guilty” of a single nonsexual misdemeanor of “touching.” The judge sentenced him to a brief probation.
The “documentary” is also inaccurate about two other women presented and their jarring stories of sexual assault, both of which have been discredited.
The fellow student accused by Columbia undergraduate Emma Sulkowicz was found “not responsible,” and repeatedly so, by the university’s disciplinary committee. Journalist Cathy Young conducted a blistering expose of Sulkowicz (who went on to perform in an extremely graphic pornographic video that allegedly relived the assault).
Florida State University (FSU) student Erica Kinsman accused Jameis Winston, an FSU football player who was later selected as the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. In a National Review article, Stuart Taylor Jr. explained that “Three separate investigations … have found former Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston [no relationship to Brandon] not to be a rapist.” Perhaps in response to a lawsuit by Kinsman, Winston has sued his accuser back, alleging that she demanded $7 million to drop the case. Nevertheless, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) stated at a press conference that “any team that is thinking about drafting Jameis Winston [should] watch this movie before doing so.”
“The Hunting Ground” does not provide the most basic safeguards of accuracy. There is no presentation of the men’s stories. There is no indication of men who have been falsely accused, no mention of the many lawsuits brought against universities and false accusers. The film is rife with misrepresentations or outright lies.
The evaluation of dishonesty is assisted by a bizarre twist. As Ashe Schow wrote in the Washington Examiner, “A crew member from ‘The Hunting Ground’ … has been editing Wikipedia articles to make facts conform with the inaccurate representations in the film.” Fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a history of changes. Edward Patrick Alva “created his Wikipedia account just two weeks after Florida State University President John Thrasher first called out the filmmakers for their inaccurate and unfair portrayal of the school and its handling of the rape accusation against former star quarterback Jameis Winston. It wasn’t until September 18, six months after creating his user profile, that Alva acknowledged he had been editing Wikipedia pages related to ‘The Hunting Ground.'” Editing pages in a self-interested manner is a clear violation of Wikipedia policy.
Jameis Winston seems to be a particular target of “The Hunting Ground” and its supporters. As noted in the Examiner, Alva edited Winston’s page to remove several facts: that no charges were filed; that Kinsman’s story kept shifting; and, that Kinsman broke off contact with the police. He also changed a section on Winston’s Wikipedia page about the New York Times’ investigation, in which the newspaper mentioned irregularities in the university’s handling of Winston’s case. As the Examiner notes, “Alva changed that sentence to read the Times ‘published the conclusions of its own investigation in April 2014, asserting that neither the TPD nor FSU had genuinely investigated the initial report.'”
Happily, “The Hunting Ground” has not been well-received and its circulation has been limited. Unhappily, CNN has been heavily promoting a showing of the documentary. It is irresponsible to the point of unethical for a “news” channel to do so.
Janet Halley, a Harvard Law professor, observed of Brandon Winston: “Three good years of his life have gone solely to this [the accusation and aftermath]. It’s not right for the filmmakers to extend it out to yet another trial in the court of public opinion, when the underlying claims have been so conclusively rejected.”
“The Hunting Ground” is not about fairness. It is about politics and ideology. For those consumed by either, the editing of truth and the destruction of innocents may seem a small price to pay.
Editor’s note: This piece has been revised to remove a paragraph and alter language in other sections.
McElroy is a research fellow at the Independent Institute.