As The Hunting Ground continues its pre-awards season publicity crusade, an odd article appeared in Vanity Fair. The purported topic is a profile of two of the documentary’s chief protagonists—Annie Clark and Andrea Pino. (Pino is the UNC accuser who can’t keep her central vignette straight.) But the article mostly serves as an example of how poorly the media handles both sexual assault and The Hunting Ground controversy.
Consider the following items:
In January of 2013, Clark and Pino were among five students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who filed a federal Title IX complaint against their school to the U.S. Department of Education. They said they had been sexually assaulted, and, despite various efforts, the university no longer felt safe to them.
What were these “various efforts”? Does the fact that “the university no longer felt safe” to students (who had, it’s worth noting, filed no report with the police or made a sexual assault allegation against the university) constitute legitimate grounds for a Title IX complaint? Was Pino more consistent in her interview with Vanity Fair about what an unnamed UNC administrator/professor told her than she’s been elsewhere? VF reporter Leora Yashari leaves these questions unanswered.
The Hunting Ground posits that campus sexual assault is not only endemic—statistics cited in the film say that one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college—but that universities take pains to cover up instances on their own campuses.
The idea that modern American universities—thousands of them, from all over the country—are capable of this sort of massive cover-up is laughable. But if so, a conspiracy of this type would merit a criminal investigation. To the extent that the handful of the cases described in The Hunting Ground are emblematic of this “cover up,” the documentary’s trouble with facts casts strong doubt on its thesis.
Meanwhile, 19 Harvard Law School professors, in conjunction with Slate’s Emily Yoffe,_have written an open letter discrediting the film’s statistics. They point to the featured case of former student Kamilah Willingham against fellow student Brandon Winston.__ Willingham accused Winston of assaulting her when she was unconscious. According to the film, Winston was dismissed from the university in September 2011, but appealed a year later and was re-instated. The letter, which refers to The Hunting Ground as “biased” and “propaganda,” strongly supports Winston as the victim of its release, and accuses the filmmakers of falsifying facts and statistics. [odd bolding pattern in original]
It’s not clear how Yashari—in a column under the heading of “true stories”—concluded that the HLS professors’ letter came “in conjunction with Slate’s Emily Yoffe.” (I tweeted her asking for evidence; she didn’t reply.) Does Yashari believe that law professors weren’t capable of writing the letter without the assistance of a journalist? Also, a trivial error, but reflective of Yashari’s casual approach to the fact: Yoffe writes for The Atlantic.
According to Clark and Pino, the media backlash is indicative of the kind of scrutiny that many survivors of sexual assault face.
“[There is an] obsession with taking instances and picking apart traits in the story to make it an anomaly,” Pino said. “We focus so much on deconstructing them and disproving them, which is unlike any other crime.”
The cultural phenomena of Making a Murderer and Serial are, if nothing else, “taking instances and picking apart traits in the story”—in these cases, of murders rather than sexual assault allegations. Has Pino ever read the crime section of a newspaper? Any decent newspaper has at least one reporter who focuses on “taking instances and picking apart traits in the story.” Has she ever attended a trial, or listened to remarks from a criminal defense attorney?
The remark illustrates the delusional mindset behind one of The Hunting Ground’s central protagonists—and someone, as Vanity Fair informs readers, who is now working with the Senate’s leading foe of students’ civil liberties, Kirsten Gillibrand.