Click here to read Blackfish / White Lies (Pt. 1): Sorry, I Forgot to Mention, They’re All Activists
I lied. I said my last post was my last foray into Blackfish. But, I have been inundated with so many emails and comments that I thought I should write one last piece to address some of these points raised either publicly or privately. First, let me say how grateful I am for most of the comments, even those that clearly think that I have missed the point of Blackfish (and, not surprisingly, there are quite a few of you out there). The point of this blog is to generate discussion and debate and to provide information and opinion about the amusement industry to those that are interested, and those goals seem to have been achieved in this series. But, having read hundreds of emails, comments, tweets, and Facebook posts about these pieces, I have seen some common themes emerging that deserve to be addressed - I just don't have time to address them individually. So I thought it made more sense to post one last piece. I wouldn't, after all, want anyone to think I was ignoring them.
1. "Can't help but think that writing off people involved in the documentary as activists therefor biased in some way is more than a little hypocritical when written by an attorney whose 'particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry.' Pot calling the Kettle Black - fish?"
This comment was left recently on Part 2 of this series and, while reflective of many other comments and emails I've received, I quote it out of admiration for the corny but creative final line. Well done.
The issue of my bias has come up a lot. And while obviously bias is a real concern in assessing the credibility of any communication, I think the point I was trying to make about bias in Blackfish has been missed by many. That's probably my fault for not being as clear as I would have liked to have been. So let me make a few points on this issue.
First, the point of my first piece in this series, which dealt exclusively with individuals involved in Blackfish and their potential, but undisclosed, biases, is that the audience is being asked to blindly accept everything in this film without knowing anything about the sources providing information. Many have done just that. My point in highlighting the potential biases of the ex-trainers and scientists featured in Blackfish was not to "write them off" or to argue that they must be lying - in fact, I said exactly the opposite - but to provide information to the viewer / reader that is obviously relevant to assessing the credibility of these speakers and the film as a whole. By choosing not to provide any information about the background of these individuals, and then characterizing the film as "not advocating for anything," Blackfish's director suggests to the audience that these sources are all that is necessary to get the complete story; that they are objective, unbiased, and simply telling a "fact driven narrative." The audience of Blackfish deserved to know more if this film truly was a work that erred on the side of the journalistic approach, as its director claims.
Second, with respect to my potential biases, I have never hidden them from anyone. Anyone reading any of my work can see, based on my bio prominently featured on the top of every page of this blog, that I am might be biased in favor of the industry, and, just as I encourage viewers of Blackfish to consider the biases inherent in the film, it would expect readers to take into account my background and potential biases as well. The difference is that, unlike Blackfish, I have not hidden anything from the people reading my work. You have the tools at your disposal to take into account my background and assess my credibility. The same cannot be said about the people featured in Blackfish.
Third, it is precisely because I know that I may be reasonably accused of bias that I take great care in my writing to back up what I say. When I am expressing an opinion, I say so, and anyone is, of course, free to disagree. But when I am expressing conclusion based on a fact, I back it up with a hyperlink to the source material. As an attorney, I deal in proof. I can't go into a court of law and make an argument based on what I think or what I believe. Worse, I can't go into a court of law and mislead a judge with "spin" on facts that don't mean what I say they do. I have to be able to point a judge to something that actually supports what I am saying. I do the same thing here. If you think I am spinning a fact or being dishonest about something, I encourage you to check the source material I've linked to and see for yourself. If there is anything I've written that is unsupported by the source material, I will correct it. But so far, while I've been accused of bias repeatedly, no one has pointed to a single factual assertion I've made in any of my work that I have reported incorrectly. That's not to say that people can't disagree with the source material I use, but I will point out that the great majority of the facts that I have reported in these pieces came directly from the mouths of the people featured in Blackfish or the film-makers themselves. True, I have also linked to some facts given by SeaWorld (specifically, in Part 3, concerning the age of their killer whales), but, as I said in that piece, I have found no indication from anyone that SeaWorld is lying about how old their whales are.
Fourth, and this is, I believe, a critically important question to consider: If you believe that what I say cannot be trusted based solely on the bias you perceive me to have, doesn't that just prove the point I've been trying to make? Assuming that you don't know me or anyone in Blackfish personally (which would obviously make a difference to an assessment of credibility), isn't encouraging skepticism of my writing due to my industry involvement an implicit recognition that bias must be considered when assessing a person's credibility? If you take my perceived biases into account and decide not to believe what I write (which is your absolute right to do), then isn't it hypocritical to take others to task for taking Dr. Lori Marino's, or Samantha Berg's or Howard Garrett's biases into account also and deciding not to believe some or all of what they say in Blackfish?
2. On a related note, why should we believe you? You make your living from the amusement park industry and are only interested in making sure that it doesn't tank (no pun intended) and would say anything to support it.
This one also gets to bias, but it injects something else that I thought should be addressed. Character. It is categorically not true that I will say anything to support the amusement industry. In fact, I've written pieces on this blog that have been critical of what I view as dangerous practices in the amusement industry. Look for the ADA piece about the death at Darien Lake or a piece I wrote about a disabled little girl who may have been mistreated at Dorney Park a couple of years ago if you don't believe me.
Good lawyers (and I consider myself a good lawyer) don't just tell their clients what they want to hear. They tell them what they need to hear and they do what is in their clients best interests. Sometimes that means saying or doing something that the client doesn't like in the moment because it is the right thing to say or do long term. For example, I have stopped depositions and forced clients to correct misstatements, I have told clients that I would not pursue particular arguments that were unsupported by the facts or the law, and I've said a lot of things at conferences and trade shows that are not exactly the "company line" of the industry. When I say something, it is because I believe it. Not because I think it is what the industry wants to hear.
Additionally, and this may come as a surprise to some of you, it is not at all the case that everyone in the amusement industry is a SeaWorld supporter. I personally know several people, some of whom are very high up in their organizations and all of whom have a stronger personal and professional relationship with me than does anyone at SeaWorld, who, after seeing Blackfish, went on record that they will never go back to a SeaWorld park so long as they continue to keep orcas. If I was concerned only with making the amusement park people happy, I wouldn't have written a word about this film in the first place - it's just too polarizing if the exclusive concern is client relations. But I believe strongly in my criticism of this film and, more importantly, its director's characterization of it, so I felt compelled to speak out.
Now, one other thing on this point. The money motive. It has been thrown at me repeatedly as it has been at SeaWorld. I have been accused of putting money (i.e. legal fees) over "the truth." Blackfish accuses SeaWorld of putting profits above its whale's welfare and the safety of its trainers. And those are valid questions. But as with the bias issue I raised above, anyone that accuses SeaWorld (or me) of having a profit motive to lie or spin the truth must also recognize that many animal rights activists, including some featured in Blackfish, likely have a stronger motive to lie or spin the truth - a motive driven by their deeply held beliefs and values.
Think of it this way: SeaWorld (or any company, for that matter) would almost certainly accept some sum of money to go out of business entirely. It might take a lot, but there is some amount of money that one could pay to SeaWorld to go out of business - to, in effect, sell the company and walk away entirely. But is there any amount of money that one could pay to Lori Marino or PETA or the ex-trainers in Blackfish that would cause them to stop advocating for killer whales? Is there any sum of money that someone could pay to these dedicated activists to get them to walk away from the cause entirely? I seriously doubt it. Unlike a corporation which, given the right amount, can be bought and sold, principles and values are not for sale. Thus, if SeaWorld (or I) can be accused of saying anything in the interest of money, shouldn't we also consider whether the activists featured in Blackfish might have an even stronger motive to say anything to protect their deeply rooted beliefs that captivity is fundamentally wrong?
3. This is a law blog, not a film review site. How exactly are you qualified to write about this film when it doesn't involve a legal issue?
Fair point. But I think there are two things that qualify me to write what I have. First, I'm pretty familiar with the governing standards for professional journalists. In addition to the practice that you all know about (i.e. the amusement industry), I have also done a good amount of representation of local media and reporters in defamation cases. I've spent a lot of time talking to journalists and judges about what the media does and how they do it.
Second, critiquing a documentary advocating for a particular position is very much like the work I do in court all the time. The things I've written here are really nothing more than basic cross examination of witnesses and argument to the jury about the facts of any particular case. And I'm quite qualified to do that.
4. OK fine ... Blackfish is not even-handed. Big Deal. Who says a documentary has to be even-handed?
Obviously, there is no rule saying that documentaries have to be even-handed. And there are plenty of great ones that aren't. But they don't all pretend to be either. The point of this series was not that this should have been more even handed. If the film and filmmakers were up front with the audience that Blackfish was an animal rights advocacy piece, I probably would never have started typing. No, the point of this series was that Gabriela Cowperthwaite was trying to sell Blackfish to the public as even handed, fact driven journalism when I do not believe it was.
5. Do you REALLY not get the message of Blackfish? Why is the message of compassion so hard to understand?
Other than, "SeaWorld is evil," I really can't put my finger on a coherent message in Blackfish. I don't think the message is one of compassion. The film spend so much time vilifying SeaWorld, as opposed to focusing on the problems associated with captivity more globally, that I truly think the point of the film was to put SeaWorld out of business - nothing more.
If the film was about compassion and the mistreatment of orcas, featuring SeaWorld and (for all intents and purposes, only SeaWorld) was not the way to do it. Imagine if the film had focused on those facilities that keep orcas in pools a quarter the size of SeaWorld's, or that have a documented history of mistreatement of cetaceans, or that don't have the track record for animal care and rescue that SeaWorld has. Couple that with the parts of Blackfish that deal with the biology and sociology of whales themselves, and that has the makings of a film about compassion.
But this film just makes its audience hate SeaWorld because, in addition to the orca welfare issues discussed, it allegedly endangers trainers, purportedly covered up the death of a trespasser who got into a killer whale's pool, and apparently lies under oath in a court of law. Yes, there are certainly some parts of Blackfish that evoke a compassionate response, but I really do not think that this film is about instilling compassion for whales. I think it's about making people hate SeaWorld (and it does that well).
6. A final note ... to those people who have accused me of supporting "baby murder," who have written for no other purpose than to insult me, call me obscene names, and make disparaging remarks about my wife and family ...
I strive to treat people with the respect and dignity deserving of anyone, regardless of political or social beliefs. I have never written anything in a comment or on this blog that is anything other than dignified and respectful. You may not like the position I have taken or the questions I've raised, but I do not believe I can fairly be accused of being anything other than professional throughout.
If you are of the belief that you can bully me or others with borderline threatening rhetoric or profane name calling, you are absolutely wrong. If you want to make a difference and represent your cause well, if you want people to actually hear your position, this is not the way to do it and it's a disgrace.
I respect those of you, some of whom appeared in Blackfish, who have written to me with intelligent comment, and have expressed your views rationally and reasonably. While some of you may not believe it, I really do value hearing other sides of the issue and I give them a lot of thought. The issue of captivity is not one that has easy answers and if answers are to be found, it will be through thoughtful debate and consideration, not through insults, anger, hate and threats.
And that's really it. No more on Blackfish - really, I mean it this time. Thanks again for reading and being part of the discussion.
Click here to read Blackfish / White Lies (Pt. 1): Sorry, I Forgot to Mention, They’re All Activists