THE BLOG
12/15/2015 07:53 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016

Sexual Assault: This is How You Go From Outrage to Doubt

If you have seen The Hunting Ground, you know that it is a gut wrenching exposition of rape on college campuses in the U.S. You know that Lady Gaga, a rape survivor herself, performs a stirring song for the film, and you may have seen the video. You might have read that the film got great reviews, that it was called a "must see" by the New York Times, that it got a standing ovation at Sundance.

If you haven't seen The Hunting Ground, but have only read about it, then you "know" that it is an "inaccurate", "misleading," "supposed documentary" forwarding the filmmakers' agenda. And you know this because of an incredibly well orchestrated press campaign intended to discredit and bury the film.

The Hunting Ground points its finger at over 100 colleges that are now being investigated by the Department of Education for failing to report and investigate rapes. Three stories, from Harvard, Florida State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, get particular attention.

The Harvard story is about Kamilah, who describes how she and a friend were assaulted by a Harvard school friend while the two women were passed out drunk. Hers is not as violent a rape as many of the other stories, and it is by someone she knows. One of the problems with this type of rape is that it will, in the vast majority of cases, come down to a "he said-she said" scenario. There will not be a preponderance of evidence. There is usually no physical struggle from an unconscious or semi-conscious woman. She also is not as likely to get up and run to an emergency room for a rape kit. As a result, the number of disciplinary actions, much less criminal investigations, on this type of rape are abysmal. But sex with a woman too drugged or intoxicated to say yes or no is still legally very much rape. Ask Bill Cosby.

FSU's segment is about Erica Kinsman, who describes being locked in and pinned to a bathroom floor, having her head slammed against the tile and being forcefully raped while she is begging him to stop. She went to the emergency room. She did the rape kit. She later recognized her attacker as Jameis Winston, at the time Florida State University's rising star quarterback, now a Heisman trophy winner and this year's number one pick in the NFL draft. There was a DNA match. According to the film, Florida State delayed the investigation for 18 months, while Winston continued winning football games.

The colleges that The Hunting Ground points fingers at have plenty to lose, and not just in reputation, which could affect parents considering colleges for their daughters, or upsetting their donor base. Universities who are found to be under-reporting or otherwise not addressing sexual assault on their campuses are at risk of losing Federal funding, under Title IX, a Federal law that addresses gender equality in our colleges.

Harvard and FSU came out swinging. According to the Hollywood Reporter, FSU hired G.F. Bunting, a communications firm in San Francisco specializing in "crisis management." As former journalists, Bunting boasts that they have "many friends and former colleagues who work at ... The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, BusinessWeek, the Washington Post, Forbes, Fortune, San Jose Mercury News, The Miami Herald, CBS, NBC and ABC News, The Associated Press, Reuters and The Huffington Post."

They play hardball. In 2013, a Pulitzer Prize nominated LA Times reporter, Jason Felch, ran a story in 2013 about Occidental College failing to report 27 sexual assaults on their campus. Occidental hired G.F. Bunting. Bunting took the reporter, and the story, down. Felch was fired for an "inappropriate relationship" with a source. LA Times retracted the article.

Occidental officials later admitted that they had, in fact, failed to report the 27 assaults and that they had been legally required to do so. There were sides to the "inappropriate relationship" story. But the story was over. So was Felch.

November was a big month. CNN had scheduled an airing of The Hunting Ground on November 22. Days before the airing, voting was closing on the short list for Best Documentary and The Hunting Ground was under consideration. The film was gaining enough traction to make people uncomfortable.

On November 16, with Bunting's help, FSU President John Thrasher issued a statement blasting the film and blasting CNN for running it. We are good guys, it says. FSU's policies in this area "have been a model for other universities." The filmmakers "had an agenda not supported by the evidence."

Unfortunately for Thrasher, 9 days later, on November 25, the New York Times ran an article drawing a picture that looks like The Hunting Ground was only the tip of the iceberg. In 2014, according to the former director of the school's Victim Advocate Office, a total of 113 FSU students had reported being raped or "sexually battered" at school. The college had reported only 14 to the Federal government. In nine years, she says, no less than 40 of the school's athletes had been accused of either sexual assault or "intimate partner" violence. To the best of her recollection, she says, only one had been found responsible.

On December 7, the publicly available deposition of the Tallahassee police officer investigating the FSU case, Scott Angulo, mirrors the data presented by The Hunting Ground nearly exactly: omitted steps, missing the obvious, filing it away for 18 months.

But on November 16, the wheels are already in motion. The Hollywood Reporter picked up the Thrasher/Bunting letter, running an article with the headline saying the film's critics call it "inaccurate" and "misleading."

Three days after Thrasher's letter, 19 Harvard law professors released a statement regarding Kamilah's case. In a nutshell the letter said there was no evidence that Brandon Winston had used force (because how much force is needed on an unconscious woman?) and that the film inaccurately implies that he was a repeat offender. Winston had his expulsion reversed, which is covered in the film. He was convicted of a lesser charge, of touching a woman's breast in a "non sexual" manner. While she is passed out on a bed drunk. After you took off her blouse. And her bra.

A press release was issued on the Harvard faculty statement, and picked up by 151,000 online news sources and blogs. The filmmakers posted a rebuttal with statements from other Harvard faculty supporting the film. This didn't get much press. They have the wrong crisis management firm.

There's more. Emails have been leaked from one of the junior producers with statements that show her as an advocate for the victims. These are extrapolated and quoted to discredit the entire film.

On the same day as the release of the letter from the Harvard law professors, another story appeared in the right-wing Washington Examiner saying that Edward Alva, a crew member on The Hunting Ground, was "caught" editing the Wikipedia pages of Brandon Winston and Jamies Winston to make the page "fit the film's narrative", in violation of Wikipedia's Conflict of Interest policies. It creates such a stir that Jimmy Wales even gets into the act.

Again the filmmakers come back, countering that in truth, Alva was not "caught" doing anything. He had disclosed his employment on the film to the editorial community from the start, exactly per the Wikipedia guidelines on Conflict of Interest.

The stories, however, took root and began to spread, bolstered by comments on articles, on Reddit and other spots. Some are real conversation, some are just trolls, some are misogynists. The responses range from scorn of the film to hatred leveled at the girls. One suggests that 58 percent of the girls reporting rape are lying. Another suggests that Kamilah "should go to jail for what she did."

CNN aired The Hunting Ground anyway and saw a 10 percent bump in audience. The Academy released its shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. The Hunting Ground is on the list.

In a new volley, Jeannie Suk, one of the Harvard Law professors defending her university, wrote an article for The New Yorker, reiterating much of what has already been written. But Suk added a new factor. Kirby Dick, the writer and director of the film, who has been fending off the charges on his own web site, made a statement to the Harvard Crimson that the bias these professors have shown (and really, by the way, the classic rape defense -- "she's a liar and he's the victim") "contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law."

Suk takes him down for the statement, saying that "[I]f, as the filmmakers suggest, the professors' statement about the film has created a hostile environment at the school, then, under Title IX, the professors should be investigated and potentially disciplined." Which would, again, threaten federal funding of the school.

Today a friend of mine, a well-known writer in New York, received an email from one of the lawyers who worked on Brandon Winston's case. It is not the only one he has sent out. In the PR world they are called "peer engagement" emails. He mentions a web site commissioned by Brandon Winston's attorneys (and evidently another "crisis management" firm, Resilience Communications, in Florida) to defend Winston and discredit the "propaganda spewed by the creators of The Hunting Ground." The web site shows Brandon Winston as a hero. It has his cute baby picture. His father was a firefighter, it says, over pictures of 9/11. Kamilah's testimony is excerpted to make the point that she is the perpetrator and he is the victim. One can only assume there are other well-known writers on this private email list.

If you are a lawyer defending a man accused of rape, this is what you do. You do not defend. You attack. Evidently, when your school is accused of under-reporting rapes and sweeping sexual assaults under the rug, you do the same.

And that is pretty much the point of The Hunting Ground, that universities care more about their reputation, their donor base, and their athletic departments then they do about a young freshman raped on campus; that on this issue, they are behaving more like corporations protecting their assets than human beings who care about a young rape victim. It's unfortunate that they are proving it true.

We don't care if Brandon Winston's father was a firefighter. And one case is not even the point of the movie. All anyone watching this film really wants from our universities, including the venerated Harvard Law, is to say yes, there is a problem here. We are going to address and fix it, for the sake of our students.