ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DECEMBER 21, 2013
In the comments section of the blog post Can a Beluga Make Jokes about a Blackfish?, I made the following statement:
The fact that CNN is broadcasting and promoting Blackfish, a film that takes aim at SeaWorld’s treatment of captive orcas (which are the largest members of the dolphin family), while its owner continues business arrangements with parks and aquariums that house captured dolphins and other marine mammals (including SeaWorld Orlando) is hypocritical. The fact that this was not disclosed by CNN is unethical by journalism standards.
This was wrong for me to state. CNN has no control over what its parent company and sister divisions do. It has no requirement to disclose this non-CNN information, especially as the business dealings (with the exception of one) are being done with SeaWorld’s competitors. Asking CNN to disclose this information is like asking FOX News to disclose, if they were to run a series of critical reports on LEGOLAND Malaysia, that their parent company was licensing a FOX theme park in the Genting Highlands.
It appears that somewhere around the start of the year, CNN quit being a news organization with journalists on staff and became an entertainment company with a small news element. If this is so, the line between journalist and on air personality has blurred to the point that CNN’s staff may no longer find themselves bound to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Jenna Deedy, blogger of the Winter Dolphin Chronicles (as in she’s worked with Winter the dolphin from the Warner Bros. film Dolphin’s Tale. Full disclosure: Warner Bros. is a sister company of CNN) posted a link to an amazing blog post written prior to the airing by former SeaWorld intern and UCF journalism graduate Jason Kelly. He writes about potential violations of the SPJ Code of Ethics that could be incurred should CNN run the film. I encourage you to read and share it. I suspect that within the next five years, one of CNN’s journalists will stand before an audience at the Newseum or the Paley Center and say, “There was a point we were told we were no longer journalists. We were told that from now on, this was the entertaining and bombastic way we were to present stories.”
CNN did not buy Blackfish out of concern for SeaWorld’s orcas. If that had been the case, they would have rushed the film into broadcast after purchasing the rights in January, not waiting for Fall. If that had been the case, they wouldn’t have published an online piece in July, six months after purchasing the rights to the film, encouraging readers to take the VIP tour at SeaWorld Orlando, complete with photo of jumping Shamu.
Blackfish was purchased because of the success of shows such as Whale Wars and Swamp People on other networks. It’s part of a new strategy under former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker, who took the reigns as President of CNN Worldwide on January 1, to build ratings resulting in stronger ad revenue.
In a December 3 interview with Capital, Zucker states:
“People who traditionally just watch the cable news networks [are] a great audience. I’m not trying to alienate that audience. But the overall cable news audience has not grown in the last 12 years, OK? So, all we’re doing is trading [audience] share. … We also want to broaden what people can expect from CNN.”
CNN’s new audience? According to Zucker, “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E.”
Amy Entelis, CNN’s Senior Vice President, expanded on this new concept in a November 7 interview with Vulture. “People come to CNN for every crisis and every breaking news story. And [that] will always be our pillar. But we also want people to come to CNN in between those crises. We want … to have more appointment television. We want it to look and feel different. We want to make an event out of it.”
CNN has made an event out of Blackfish with both their ownership of the film (it’s almost always referred to as “CNN Films’ Blackfish” or “Blackfish, which was broadcast on CNN”) and their continual coverage of events resulting from the film’s broadcast on their network. The company’s critical slant towards SeaWorld, in my opinion, is not necessarily caused by any animosity towards the theme park chain. Had it been, as I mentioned above, they would have broadcast the film much earlier, especially before the busy Summer season.
This is what I believe happened. Animal rights activists and organizations began major social media campaigns encouraging their followers to see the film and spread word of the airing. When the film was broadcast on October 24, it had a viewership of 1.4 million. Of that, 688,000 were in the coveted 18-49 age group, nearly three times that of FOX News for the same two hours and four times that of MSNBC. CNN wanted to capitalize further on this new audience spurred by the animal rights movement’s social media campaigns, so its coverage of events surrounding SeaWorld and the film began to parallel techniques long utilized by animal rights organizations. This new approach is a radical departure from that in place in 2010, when CNN’s journalists provided extensive news coverage surrounding Dawn’s death.
And CNN continues to carry on this approach. On December 19, SeaWorld announced that it had the day prior rescued a sub-adult female manatee from the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, FL. The story was carried by many news outlets throughout Florida and the rest of the country, but not CNN’s national feed. Instead, CNN opted to show an original story on how a 10-year old girl persuaded her school to cancel an annual field trip to SeaWorld San Diego after watching the film with her parents (the filmmakers and animal rights groups encourage this practice). I hope this young girl also makes an effort never to visit LEGOLAND and encourages her classmates to do the same. If you don’t know why I mentioned LEGOLAND, you haven’t done your research on SeaWorld. Instead of being a concerned citizen caring for the whales, you might just be a lemming.
But I don’t blame you. Earlier today, SeaWorld released an open letter on how they care for their orcas. This is how the local Orlando station, WESH Channel 2, covered the story. This is a good example of responsible journalism. As a disclaimer, WESH is a CNN affiliate. This means they can run CNN stories and their reporters can file reports for CNN.
Now look at CNN’s report on the same story. CNN’s story is not about the content of the letter, but rather about how CNN’s film Blackfish has created an anti-SeaWorld movement among musicians and schoolchildren. And it ends with a painfully inaccurate and misleading conversation that parallels both a misleading edit in the film and a distorted statement on Peta’s SeaWorld of Hurt page.
Martin Savage: “One of the things that was brought out in this ad is to say they no longer capture whales. That’s true. They have a very successful breeding program. But Tilikum, he was captured from the wild.”
Carol Costello: “I think a lot of people would find that disturbing because, you know the documentary, it shows how that poor whale was treated, right? So?”
Martin Savage: “It does.
Carol Costello: “So people think SeaWorld should do something.”
Martin Savage: “They do.”
It is well documented that Tilikum WAS NOT captured by SeaWorld and SeaWorld did not have any ownership stake in the orca until his home, Sealand of the Pacific, was slated for closure. It is also well documented, especially in the film, that the abuse he endured was in Canada.
So I apologize to CNN for my earlier comments. Until your onscreen personalities start to get their facts correct with readily available source material in the public domain, I can’t consider your staff to be journalists. And not being journalists, you are welcome to be as hypocritical and unethical as you’d like, without my getting on your case, in your pursuit of higher ratings and increased ad revenue.