A Smoking-Gun E-mail Exposes the Bias of The Hunting Ground

(©2015 The Hunting Ground Film)

A so-called documentary about campus rape, The Hunting Ground, is set to air Thursday on CNN, which co-produced it. But a newly available e-mail from an investigative producer of the film spectacularly belies its pretensions to be honest, balanced journalism. Instead, the e-mail adds to the large body of evidence that that the film is highly misleading if not dishonest.

Related: The Cinematic Railroading of Jameis Winston

In the December 21, 2013, e-mail from Amy Herdy (billed in the film as working with independent director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering), Herdy sought an interview with Erica Kinsman and her lawyer about her highly publicized rape accusation against Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy–winning, first-NFL-draft-pick former Florida State quarterback.

The Herdy e-mail, sent to Kinsman’s then-lawyer, included this assurance: “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” (emphasis added).

‘This is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions.’

This e-mail appears directly contrary to claims by both Dick and CNN — which calls itself “the most trusted name in news” — that this is an accurate, balanced documentary, fair to both sides of every story.

While calling himself “both an activist and a filmmaker,” Dick stressed in a typical promotional interview that “for us first is accuracy.”

Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, let slip the network’s own bias at the Sundance premiere, where he brushed aside anticipated criticism of the film by universities — which it smears as covering up for rapists — by saying that “they are on the wrong side.”

The Herdy e-mail, originally sent to Kinsman’s then-lawyer (and aunt) Patricia Carroll, and related documents were made available to this writer today by Florida State, which obtained the e-mail in connection with Kinsman’s lawsuit against the school.

A second e-mail from Amy Herdy, dated February 12, 2014, asked accuser Kinsman’s lawyer whether she was “ok with us sending [to Jameis Winston] the official request this week” for an interview. Herdy added: “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.”

Also today, FSU president John Thrasher issued a statement that the film’s claim that FSU and many other schools have turned their backs on Erica Kinsman and other alleged victims of sexual assault “contains major distortions and glaring omissions to support its simplistic narrative.” He added: “It is inexcusable for a network as respected as CNN to pretend that the film is a documentary rather than an advocacy piece.”

Thrasher likened the film to the notorious, now-retracted Rolling Stone article about what proved to be a fabricated story about an alleged sadistic gang rape, atop shattered glass, at a University of Virginia fraternity. The Rolling Stone article, Thrasher said, took a purported rape victim’s “story at face value without getting the other side or checking the details with other sources, including the accused.” He said that FSU had expressed to top CNN executives, to no avail, “our concerns about the factual, statistical and ethical defects in the film.”

Thrasher is far from alone is assailing the film’s veracity. Among others, 19 Harvard Law School professors, including eminent feminists and progressives, said last week in a press release that “this purported documentary provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student Brandon Winston,” who was “vindicated by the Law School” and by a criminal jury that found him not guilty of any sexual misconduct.

The Hunting Ground, which runs 103 minutes, has been shown since last January at the Sundance Film Festival, in hundreds of theaters around the country (mostly at colleges), and at the White House, where President Obama has led a major propaganda effort linked to his administration’s campaign to destroy due process for students falsely accused of rape.

#share#The version to be shown on CNN this week contains minor changes from earlier versions, evidently intended to soften for deniability purposes — without removing — some of the distortions that have been identified by me at NRO and by Emily Yoffe at Slate.

As I noted in March at NRO, even though police, prosecutors, and an exceptionally fair and thorough FSU investigation all found insufficient evidence to prove that Winston raped Kinsman, the film’s longest segment — 15 full minutes — portrays him as a rapist who drugged his victim and got away with it because of bad police work and college administrators’ greed and favoritism toward football stars.

The earlier versions of the film systematically concealed, and the CNN version still obscures, how Kinsman’s story conflicts with the physical evidence including a toxicology test showing no drugs in Kinsman’s system, her own inconsistent succession of statements, and the statements of other witnesses. While hiding this evidence, director Kirby Dick has publicly insisted that Kinsman is “extremely credible.”

I asked CNN this afternoon to comment on the Herdy e-mail and my analysis of it; as of publication, they have not responded to my request for comment.

Coincidentally, I am apparently the lone critic of the film to participate in CNN’s November 11 taping of a panel discussion of the film; CNN told me that it will air the discussions by my panel and others immediately after the film itself. My take: The film is slick, skillful propaganda.

— Stuart Taylor Jr. is a Washington writer and Brookings Institution nonresident senior fellow. He and KC Johnson co-authored a 2007 book exposing the Duke-lacrosse rape fraud and are drafting a new book on the campus rape panic. 

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