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CNN's 'The Hunting Ground' Scrutinized For Portrayal Of Campus Sexual Assault


CNN has been getting legal warnings about a documentary it aired last night. The film is called "The Hunting Ground." CNN helped produce it. The documentary makes the case that school administrators have often been indifferent to young female victims of sexual assault on college campuses. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The film was first released in January at the Sundance Festival but made its CNN debut last night. It carried an unusual introduction from CNN's Alisyn Camerota.


ALISYN CAMEROTA: This is an issue that sparks strong emotions from the victims to the accused to the universities they attend. The film takes one side. It purposely set out to tell the story of survivors, as they call themselves, or accusers, as the law calls them.

FOLKENFLIK: It included painful, often-tearful accounts


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The first few weeks, I made some of my best friends. And we're still really, really close to this day. But two of us were sexually assaulted before classes had even started.

FOLKENFLIK: Kirby Dick is the director of "The Hunting Ground."

KIRBY DICK: I think college and universities have a real responsibility to keep their students safe. And obviously, being sexually assaulted is completely a safety issue. And the schools are really failing in this area.

FOLKENFLIK: The documentary has been cited by advocates for victims of sexual assault and by public officials, too. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo screened the movie earlier this year at Lincoln Center in pushing new state laws on sexual consent. But "The Hunting Ground" has received a rough reception from many journalistic critics, such as The Atlantic's Emily Yoffe. Yoffe says filmmakers had such a strong agenda that they were repeatedly unfair to the accused.

EMILY YOFFE: I have grave problems with CNN, which is a news network, presenting this as a fair exploration of an important subject.

FOLKENFLIK: Among the most infamous cases involved allegations against a former Florida State football star, Jameis Winston, now an NFL quarterback. Lawyers for Winston warned CNN "The Hunting Ground" was defamatory. Some details of the accusations against him and others accused of sexual assault were omitted in the version CNN aired. Other journalists have sharply questioned the relevance in credibility of some of the studies on which the filmmakers based their findings. A CNN spokeswoman stood by the broadcast. Director Kirby Dick said the filmmakers relied on scholarship almost invariably showing the same thing, a pervasive culture of assault on campus and colleges mostly showing concern after prodding by government officials. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.