FSU President Responds to CNN's Decision to Air "The Hunting Ground"

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By: WCTV Eyewitness News
November 16, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- CNN is set to air “The Hunting Ground" this week-- a controversial documentary that focuses on sexual assault on college campuses.

"The Hunting Ground" features former Florida State University student Erica Kinsman, who accused then-FSU quarterback Jameis Winston of rape.

WCTV is identifying Kinsman only after she agreed to go public in the film.

FSU President John Thrasher released the following statement Monday regarding CNN's decision to air the film:

A Statement by President John Thrasher
November 16, 2015

This week, CNN will air “The Hunting Ground,” a film that charges FSU and other institutions of higher education with turning their backs on the victims of sexual assault. The film has been shown theatrically and on campuses across the country. Now, as part of its national television debut, CNN has invited me and other university presidents to join a televised panel discussion defending the university and critiquing the film.

I have declined and I want you to know why.

Before I do, however, I want to make one thing clear: FSU does not tolerate rape. Period.

We, like other major universities, have been moving quickly to adopt changes and meet the new and evolving Title IX requirements imposed by the U.S. Department of Education.

For many years, FSU’s policies in this area have been a model for other universities; nevertheless, we recently reviewed and improved them, made them easier to access on the Web, bolstered bystander training, increased sexual responsibility training for incoming freshmen and hired a full-time Title IX officer to handle the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault complaints.

You will not see or hear any of this in “The Hunting Ground.” And that is why I – and I believe the presidents of other universities portrayed in the film – have decided not to participate. It’s about the journalism, not the subject.

Good, strong universities do not hide from criticism but rather constantly re-examine whether they are doing things as they should. When Florida State has objected to certain media stories involving this issue it was not because we feared exposure for some mistake or wanted to deny the problem exists. It was because those making negative assertions had an agenda not supported by the evidence. We simply could not let stand an inaccurate or incomplete picture of the university’s conduct.

Now, we have “The Hunting Ground,” which contains major distortions and glaring omissions to support its simplistic narrative that colleges and universities are to blame for our national sexual assault crisis. FSU plays a prominent part in the film in a one-sided segment accusing Tallahassee police and the University of ignoring sexual assault allegations against former quarterback Jameis Winston to protect the athletic program.

It is inexcusable for a network as respected as CNN to pretend that the film is a documentary rather than an advocacy piece. 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.”

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason. It’s been barely seven months since Rolling Stone retracted its ill-fated University of Virginia fraternity rape story after 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.

Columbia University Journalism School, which examined the magazine’s reporting and editing of the piece, concluded that Rolling Stone had “set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting.”

We believe the same is true with “The Hunting Ground.” Five months ago, we approached CNN’s General Counsel along with the Executive Vice President for News Standards and Practices to express our concerns about the factual, statistical and ethical defects in the film.

We also questioned whether the filmmakers ever intended to follow journalistic conventions of accuracy, fairness and objectivity by providing strong evidence that should have forced the network to revise, if not rethink, its airing of the film without making substantial editing changes.

Instead, 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.

CNN’s answer to our concerns was to invite me and presidents from other universities criticized in the film to a panel discussion following the film. Most, if not all, declined, seeing this gesture for the window dressing it was. We wanted no part in making CNN look like it was being fair while allowing the network to kick the can of journalistic integrity down the road.

CNN will be airing a piece of advocacy that is more about blame and emotion than accuracy, fairness and inclusion. This is a lost opportunity to have a full, fair and meaningful discussion on the national stage about the complex issue of sexual assault on college campuses.

We at FSU work diligently to stay true to our values and treat every person with respect and dignity. It is the most important lesson we teach.

"The Hunting Ground" airs on CNN November 19 at 9 p.m. ET.

By: Edan Schultz
March 27, 2015

TALLAHASSEE -- The director of a controversial documentary that puts the spotlight on Florida State University was in Tallahassee Friday, March 27, 2015.

Kirby Dick's film, "The Hunting Ground," documents sexual assault on college campuses and features former FSU student Erica Kinsman.

WCTV is identifying Kinsman only after she agreed to go public in the film.

She accuses former FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, later a Heisman trophy recipient and winner of the national championship, of raping her in December 2012.

"Her side of the story hadn't really been heard," said Kirby Dick.

The director says Kinsman came forward to raise awareness and push for change.

"It was not a decision she made lightly," the director said, "She's a very private person and it took her a long time to come to that decision but she finally did."

Dick contends Kinsman's story is consistent and extremely believable, despite Winston's claims that the sex was consensual and the State Attorney's decision that there's not enough evidence to prosecute.

"We've done very extensive interviews with her and it's always been the same response," he said.

A university student conduct code hearing also found there wasn't enough evidence to discipline Winston. And FSU president John Thrasher has blasted the documentary, claiming the film is one-sided and lacks credibility. But Dick refutes those charges.

"We've looked at thousands of pages of documents and we've spoken to hundreds of experts around the country around this issue so we've really done our homework, we've done our fact checking," said the director.

Critics of the film point out that Kinsman believes someone slipped a drug in her drink the night she says she was raped, but the documentary doesn't disclose that toxicology tests found no evidence of drugs in her system.

The director says he and his researchers spoke to an FBI expert on the issue.

"He said that most lab reports don't test for all drugs and there's definitely a likelihood the drug wasn't tested for or there weren't adequate levels in her drink," said Dick.

Dick says the film doesn't single out FSU, but makes the case that sexual assaults are ignored and covered up at colleges nationwide.

"We've heard cases like Erica's and in many cases much worse around the country," he said.

"Even though a section of the film is about what happened at FSU, this is a problem at all college campuses. By no means does this mean FSU is worse than other schools. In some ways if a person has enough courage to come forward that means there's something about the climate of that school that's good that at least empowers someone to come forward," Dick explained.

He's calling on colleges to use his film as a tool to help address the problem.

Already, 150 colleges and universities have scheduled screenings of "The Hunting Ground."
Hundreds more have inquired about the film.

Dick says hearing from survivors and raising awareness is the first step. But administrators have to change policies.

"What we're hoping is that college presidents step up and take a leadership position on this. Historically, across the country, they really haven't."

"That's why it's so important to listen to survivors and it's so important for administrators and college presidents to sit down with survivors and understand not just what happens with the assault, but when someone comes forward to report, because that's the way you can learn what the problems are and how to change them," said Dick.

The director says he likes FSU and the Tallahassee community, and is hopeful there will be change at the university.

"I see FSU as becoming a leader on this. It's just all part of the process of understanding what the problem is and moving forward," he said.

We reached out to Jameis Winston's attorney, who declined to comment for this story.

FSU President John Thrasher was not available and did not respond to a call seeking comment.

By Julie Montanaro

March 25, 2015

A controversial documentary that focuses on sexual assault on college campuses will air in Tallahassee starting tomorrow.

The "Hunting Ground" features an FSU student who accused quarterback Jameis Winston of rape.

It's a documentary that FSU's president has called one-sided, but many students we spoke to are anxious to see what the woman has to say.

"I kinda just want to know like ... why me?" Erica Kinsman says as she wipes away tears in a clip provided by Radius/CNN Films. "It doesn't really make sense."

Kinsman shared her side of the story in the Hunting Ground - a documentary which focuses its lens on sexual assaults on campus - and what it calls "institutional cover ups."

Kinsman contends she was sexually assaulted by FSU quarterback Jameis Winston in December 2012. Wintson insists the sex was consensual.

The state attorney later decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute Winston and a university hearing officer found no reason to discipline him.

Kinsman's story will unfold on the big screen at AMC Theatres in Tallahassee starting Thursday evening.

The AMC web site announces showings daily through next Tuesday, including six shows a day Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"I'm definitely excited about seeing it. I think it's really important for university students and the general public to get a different perspective on the story," FSU student Sarah Axelrad said.

"This is why I want to watch the documentary just so it's not the elephant in the room type situation, you know, I want everyone to be aware of what's going on around them," FSU student Wolff Jacques said.

"I'm not attending," FSU President John Thrasher said. Thrasher is on record as calling the Hunting Ground "distorted" and "one sided" and says its makers did not initially disclose Kinsman would be going public in the 90 minute documentary.

"I think there are some extraordinary factual discrepancies in what they're saying and what actually happened for our part of it, so I'm going to leave it at that," Thrasher said. "We are in litigation with the young woman who is part of the documentary. She filed a lawsuit against us and so we're defending that and we'll take up our efforts in the courtroom."

That court case is a Title Nine lawsuit Kinsman filed against FSU for its handling of the sex assault allegations.

WCTV is showing video clips and identifying Kinsman by name only after she went public in the documentary and asked the courts to include her name in the lawsuit.

By: Julie Montanaro
March 4, 2015

A soon-to-be-released documentary on campus sex assault is creating controversy at FSU.

It features an interview with the woman who accused quarterback Jameis Winston of rape and who has since filed suit against the university for its handling of her complaint.

"The first few weeks I made some of my best friends, but two of us were sexually assaulted before classes even started." Those are the words of a sexual assault victim featured in "The Hunting Ground."

The documentary aired last week on big screens in New York and Los Angeles and among the women featured in the documentary on sexual assaults on campus is the woman who accused FSU quarterback Jameis Winston of raping her.

The documentary has prompted FSU to file a formal protest with the film's production company - and a fiery response from Florida State president John Thrasher. He sent a a letter to FSU supporters calling it "distorted" and "one-sided."

"This film was wrong in many respects," FSU President John Thrasher said. "We never had an opportunity to respond. This film was submitted to the Sundance Film Festival three months before we were even contacted about responding."

The film's director, Kirby Dick, did issue a statement today saying "We didn't get a response until last week - three days before our film opened in theaters and more than two months after we first sent the letter."

President Thrasher says the initial contact in December did not mention Winston's accuser would be going public in the documentary.

Students on campus, including some pushing a petition to end violence against women, had plenty to say about the controversial documentary.

"I think it's a really good documentary to put out there just being able to hear the victim's side of the story," FSU student Demi Musgrove said.

"It's not about FSU," student Joan Joseph said. "It's about violence against women. I think that's what we need to tackle here, not how a university is portrayed."

"Very lately, FSU has been getting a lot of attention because of cases like that, so I feel like we are not always portrayed as the best university, however, it's a very good story and it's something that needs to be told," student Wesley Paez said.

Below we have posted copies of the letter John Thrasher sent to FSU supporters as well as the response from the documentary director, Kirby Dick.

Statement from FSU President John Thrasher:

February 27, 2015

Dear Friends,

We want to make you aware that "The Hunting Ground," a film about campus sexual assaults that debuted in Los Angeles and New York City Thursday, is seriously lacking in credibility and presents a one-sided view of Florida State's actions in the Jameis Winston case.

The filmmakers interviewed (the accuser), but no one representing Florida State. This provides the viewing public with an incomplete and erroneous view of what the University did to investigate (the accuser's) allegations. This distorted presentation is all the more egregious in light of the fact (the accuser) has filed a lawsuit against the University over the case.

The first time the University was contacted by the filmmakers was December 18 - nearly three months after they had submitted the film to the Sundance Film Festival and it was scheduled for its artistic premiere. They sent a generic email asking for comment about sexual assault but failed to disclose that FSU would be a target of criticism and withheld the fact that (the accuser) would be going public with her version of the story.

Had FSU been given the opportunity to reply, we would have made it clear the University went to extraordinary lengths to support (the accuser) and to initiate an impartial, independent Title IX investigation of her allegations against Mr. Winston. Our efforts included arranging an independent investigation by a former Florida Supreme Court justice. He reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents and took testimony from Mr. Winston, (the accuser) and 10 witnesses before ruling there was not a preponderance of evidence to support her allegations. This was not mentioned in the film, although it received ample press coverage.

Alerted to these serious omissions, FSU this week lodged a formal protest with the film's production company, Radius-TWC, which declined to make the film available although it had already been screened in January at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and just last week at a student film festival.

Florida State advocates shining a bright light on the subject of sexual assault on college campuses. We want to reassure you that FSU takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously - as it did in this case - and works tirelessly through the Victim Advocate Program to support victims and help them recover. This includes informing victims about all of their options in deciding whether to initiate criminal or student conduct charges under Title IX. We remain serious about our commitment to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our students, particularly victims of sexual assault.

We also take seriously the need for journalists to observe basic ethics and standards. "The Hunting Ground" fails to meet those standards and, as a result, fails to present balanced and responsible coverage of this very important issue.

John Thrasher


Here's the response from director Kirby Dick:

"The university had months to respond to the letter we sent President Thrasher in which we wrote that our film would examine how FSU was dealing with issues they had encountered regarding sexual assault and asking how it was responding to the crisis.

This was a similar correspondence - in content and timing - that all colleges and universities featured in the film received. We didn't get a response until last week - three days before our film opened in theaters and more than two months after we first sent the letter. Worth noting, we kept the film open until February 19th in the hopes that President Thrasher and other presidents would come forward. It's unfortunate because we would have welcomed including President Thrasher or another FSU official in the film.

Beyond the university itself, we also contacted Jameis Winston's attorney, the Tallahassee Police Department and Investigator Angulo. Representatives from the Tallahassee Police and Investigator Angulo declined to be interviewed. Neither Winston nor his attorney returned our multiple queries.

In addition, we interviewed a total of seven FSU sexual assault survivors whose stories contain common themes:

1) Discouragement from reporting
2) Insensitive treatment by FSU officials and police
3) Blame for their own assault

Rather than attack the messenger, President Thrasher should show leadership and focus on the problem that has existed on his campus for decades."

Kirby Dick

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