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.