The Magazine

A Documentary in Name Only

Blackfish vs. SeaWorld.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Blackfish does raise a few legitimate questions about SeaWorld’s practices, but a responsible inquiry would weigh any criticism against an obvious question: Why do we keep any animals in zoological environments? Part of the answer is that we learn a great deal about animals in captivity, and that knowledge often proves vital to propagating the species and protecting their habitats. It’s understandable that people would bristle at the notion of keeping such large animals penned up for human amusement, but it’s hard to deny SeaWorld has made voluminous contributions to marine biology. If “save the whales” has gone from hippie slogan to accepted wisdom, that might owe something to the generations of Americans who trekked to SeaWorld to marvel at what Shamu can do. 

Blackfish isn’t unique among popular documentaries in its errors and distortions. In 2011, the documentary Gasland was nominated for an Academy Award. Gasland is a radical environmental fulmination against “fracking,” the drilling technique responsible for our current domestic energy boom. The film’s claims have since been thoroughly debunked by even sympathetic liberal environmentalists. 

Also in 2011, a judge blocked an $18.2 billion ruling against Chevron for allegedly contaminating the Amazon. The ruling extensively cited raw footage subpoenaed from Crude, a 2009 environmental documentary made by the Academy Award-nominated Joe Berlinger that glorified the lawsuit and those who brought it. It turns out that one scene left on the cutting room floor showed the American lawyer heading up the class-action suit talking about intimidating Ecuadorean legal authorities and saying it would be “good” for a judge to fear getting killed if he rules the wrong way. Chevron is now pursuing a RICO suit against the lawyers, claiming that they were trying to shake the oil company down.

Unfortunately, movie audiences don’t know what they don’t know and are easily manipulated. There’s no question SeaWorld’s brand has been tarnished by Blackfish. Eight big-name musical acts have pulled out of SeaWorld’s “Bands, Brew & BBQ” concert series, citing the documentary. But attendance at SeaWorld parks has actually improved since the film’s release, and the failure to garner an Academy Award nomination probably means the negative publicity will die down soon.

Still, it might be time to start looking more closely at the actual documentation underlying documentaries, especially if organizations such as CNN and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are risking their credibility to support them.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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