“Proof of bias is almost always relevant because the jury, as finder of fact and weigher of credibility, has historically been entitled to assess all evidence which might bear on the accuracy and truth of a witness' testimony.”
United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45, 52 (1984).
Former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court William Rhenquist wrote these words nearly 30 years ago. They are as true in the Court of Public Opinion as they are in a court of law. Blackfish has a lot of “testimony” that is presented without any hint of potential bias – quite the opposite actually. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite strongly suggests the outright credibility of most of the people who appear in the film. After all, who better to speak about what is going on with SeaWorld’s whales than a bunch of ex-trainers who spent years working with them? Who better to explain the science behind orca behavior and biology than experts in the field and a neuroscientist who has studied the brain of a killer whale up close? Since Blackfish provides no background on any of these individuals, other than what is necessary to establish their credibility, the “jury” in the Court of Public Opinion is left with nothing to assess the true credibility of their “testimony.” In a court of law, questions of bias are raised through cross examination. Similarly, in true journalistic pieces, the journalist “cross examines” his or her source by, for example, playing the “devil’s advocate” and challenging them to explain, debunk, or address potential sources of bias. Cross examination and journalistic honesty are vital tools that allow the audience to decide for themselves whether what is being said is “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But in Blackfish, there is no “cross examination” of the "witnesses" the "jury" is expected to believe. Consequently, it is easy to view Blackfish as telling its story though an objective lens. But that’s just not the case.
|Gabriela Cowperthwaite and the "cast" of Blackfish|
Now, let's be clear. Having a bias does not make a person a liar. It is perfectly reasonable to say that some people may set aside their biases in the interest of telling an objective story. But that does not mean that we, as critically thinking jurors in the Court of Public Opinion should assume that to be the case. As a juror, we have every right to know the potential biases that exist in Blackfish and, after considering those biases, to decide for ourselves whether the "testimony" we've heard is the truth, an exaggeration of the truth, or a lie. As jurors, we have the right (perhaps the obligation) to decide if a witness' biases are so strongly held that they are incapable of objectivity – even with conscious effort.
The Ex-SeaWorld Trainers
So let’s talk about the “witnesses” in Blackfish. Who are they? I think the obvious place to start is with the former trainers and, in particular, John Jett, Jeffrey Ventre, and Samantha Berg who, based solely on screen time, can reasonably be characterized as the “leads” of the film. So who are they, aside of course from “ex-trainers” as stated in the film.
Let’s look first at Samantha Berg, the ex-trainer who arguably got the most screen time in Blackfish. While it is true that Ms. Berg is an ex-SeaWorld trainer, she is also a self-described anti-captivity activist with ties to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”), an organization known for its radical political agenda and activism. In fact, Ms. Berg was, along with PETA, a plaintiff (on behalf of SeaWorld’s killer whales) in a federal lawsuit captioned Tilikum v. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Inc. – the infamous “killer whale slavery” case about which I’ve written previously. The complaint filed on Ms. Berg’s behalf in that case, which although filed years before the release of Blackfish could be read as a synopsis of the film, says this about Ms. Berg:
“Since leaving SeaWorld Orlando, Ms. Berg has regularly spoken out as an advocate against keeping orcas in captivity.”
(Incidentally, Carol Ray, another ex-trainer also featured, albeit briefly, in the film was also a participant in this lawsuit and is described in identical terms.)
The Tillikum lawsuit was pretty remarkable for the extreme position it advanced – namely that SeaWorld was violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on slavery and involuntary servitude by holding killer whales in captivity. This theory, which the Court dismissed within hours of hearing argument on SeaWorld’s motion to dismiss, was unprecedented and a truly radical attempt to expand Constitutional rights beyond human beings to non-human animals – a concept that no doubt would have been quite foreign to the founding fathers. In short, Ms. Berg’s participation in the Tilikum lawsuit alone should be enough to cause the jury in the Court of Public Opinion to pause and consider whether her “testimony” in Blackfish is biased or not.
Carol Ray, John Jett, Jeffrey Ventre, and Samantha Berg also collectively run a website called “Voice of the Orcas” dedicated to “providing a voice to those without.” Voice of the Orcas states that it is a “place to archive interviews and current events that deal with conservation and activism.” The site features a number of pages devoted to topics such as the SeaWorld v. OSHA case discussed in Blackfish, David Kirby (a well-known author and activist) and his book, Death at SeaWorld, the Loro Parque incident discussed in the film, as well as a number of pages discussing or promoting Blackfish itself. Unsurprisingly, there are no sections of the website to “give a voice” to anyone holding a contrary opinion on the topic (aside, perhaps, from the comments sections (which appear to require permission to post). Notably, the site also contains a number of links to information about its founders, including:
- An op-ed written by Dr. Jett unequivocally staing that he “considers killer whale captivity grossly unjust,” and challenging zoological parks to justify the practice of “concrete pool imprisonment.”
- A video
of a speech given by Samantha Berg where she, in the first 16 seconds,
describes herself as an “anti-captivity activist.”
- An interview given by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite andJeffrey Ventre to promote Blackfish, in which Mr. Ventre makes clear his personal belief that “Killer
whales shouldn’t be in captivity, nor should cetaceans in general or anything
that’s a free-ranging animal.” In this
same interview, he all but adopts the radical agenda presented in the Tilikum lawsuit, stating:
Jeffrey VentreI think the future is going to be dictated in the court system and by the Nonhuman Rights Project. What I mean by that is, the way we got out of slavery at some point was when the distinction of what a black person was in the United States went from property to a person. So, some of these animals, whether it’s elephants or chimps or cetaceans, have demonstrated self-awareness. They grieve their young. They use tools and language. They have culture. At some point, in a court in the United States, a case is going to be won for a particular animal. And once that happens, it’s going to close the door at least in this country.Now, none of this is to suggest that any of these people are bad people or are trying to deceive the public. Far from it. I have every reason to believe that each of them is smart, passionate, and participated in this film with what he or she believes to be honorable motives. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t biased or that their statements should not be considered with their activist agenda in mind. And it certainly doesn't mean that Blackfish is a work of journalism and not advocacy.The Scientists
But, of course, the ex-trainers are not the only cast members in Blackfish. Ms. Cowperthwaite also features interviews with bona fide scientists, including a neuroscientist, Dr. Lori Marino, and an orca researcher, Howard Garrett. Surely, scientists don’t carry the same potential activist bias that the ex-trainers do, right? Well…
We don’t need to look much further than the Tilikum complaint to fill in a few relevant blanks with respect to Howard Garrett. He was also a named plaintiff in that slavery lawsuit, and the complaint filed on his behalf states that he has “advocated on behalf of orcas and other marine mammals for thirty years, including advocating for the release of captive orcas,” and, among other credentials, “co-founded the Orca Network, a Washington State-based non-profit organization, to raise awareness of the orcas of the Pacific Northwest.” It would seem pretty difficult to question Mr. Garrett’s knowledge in the field of orcas, but it is equally difficult to see him as objective when it comes to this field.
|Dr. Lori Marino|
Which, finally, brings us to Dr. Marino – a researcher merely described in Blackfish as a neuroscientist. With all due respect to Dr. Marino’s impressive academic credentials, calling her just a neuroscientist is like calling Barack Obama just a law professor. It’s technically true, but really fails to capture who she is. So who is Lori Marino? Well, first lets turn back to that SeaWorld-slavery lawsuit. No, Dr. Marino was not a plaintiff like Samantha Berg and Howard Garett. But she may well have been involved. See, a group called the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights was permitted by the Court to intervene on behalf of the killer whales in that case. The Center for Fundamental Rights is now known as The Nonhuman Rights Project, the same organization Mr. Ventre referenced in the quote above. It describes itself as “the only organization working toward actual LEGAL rights for members of species other than our own.” In short, the Nonhuman Rights Project is working to achieve exactly what PETA, Mr. Garrett, Ms. Ray, and Ms. Berg were trying to achieve in accusing SeaWorld of slavery and involuntary servitude. And, guess who its Science Director is? Yep. Dr. Lori Marino.
But that’s not all. Dr. Marino is also the founder and Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, Inc, “the only organization focusing exclusively on bridging the gap between academic research and sholoarship and on-the-ground animal advocacy efforts.” The Kimmela Center’s website embraces the term “scholar-advocate” defined as “a new professional model for animal advocacy based on scholarship that is solutions driven and applied to real-world problems.” So, yes, Dr. Marino is a neuroscientist, but she is also arguably the nation’s foremost “scholar-advocate” working against animal captivity while urging the recognition of Constitutional rights for non-humans. And, while significant to the jury's deliberations in the Court of Public Opinion, none of this was, of course, mentioned in Blackfish.
Of course, there are others in Blackfish, but this piece has already gone on long enough and this covers the major players in the film. But remember, my point is not that any of these people are lying (although I think one of them probably is – and I will prove it in an upcoming piece), but only that their background demonstrates a clear agenda that belies Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s insistence that her film “is not at all advocating for anything” and that she “truly believe[s] that [she] err[ed] on the side of the journalistic approach, not the advocacy approach.”
Blackfish does not shy away from suggesting that SeaWorld has a strong profit motive to “spin” the truth about its whales and their trainers. But I would suggest that it is just as possible that the leading players in Blackfish may have an equally strong motive to “spin” the truth about their experiences and the experiences of the whales. Money is a powerful motive, and we would be foolish to discount it in assessing the credibility of SeaWorld or any other party, but strongly held principles and fundamental beliefs often are more powerful motives than money. And activists like Samantha Berg, John Jett, Jeffrey Ventre, Howard Garrett, and Lori Marino have a wealth of both that Blackfish’s audience never knew anything about.
Until we meet again for Part 2....