Last week, journalist James McWilliams posted a brief, stinging, eloquent blog at Forbes.com about how the low-budget film “Blackfish” is taking on a multi-billion dollar company, and may be winning. The piece won him few friends among editors at the website, who told him to alter it to include favorable information on SeaWorld. He refused, quitting his freelance gig and earning high marks from whale and dolphin lovers everywhere. Sadly today, too many reporters just do as they’re told, like stenographers. Not this one. As McWilliams told me in a recent interview: “Forbes.com went right, and I went left.”
Q) What inspired you to write this piece?
I write almost daily about animal-related issues, either on my own blog or for various publications, so I’m constantly seeking relevant topics to cover. In this case, my son, who is eleven, kept pushing me to watch the documentary “Blackfish.” We viewed it together and, indeed, that kid was onto something. It was a powerful film. So I decided to post a brief piece at Forbes.com.
Q) How did you research the blog?
My research involved exploring the question at the core of the film: do the conditions of captivity frustrate orcas to the point where they harm their handlers? It strikes me as a fascinating hypothesis. An overwhelming body of evidence, much of it presented in the film, indicated that the answer was “yes.” This point seemed worth highlighting for my Forbes readers. But, do note, the post did not require tremendous investigative work. After all, the point of it was simply to show how a low-budget documentary with a compelling thesis could put a well-documented message in the public sphere and, in so doing, deliver a social media lashing to a Goliath of an institution.
Q) Clearly, your immediate editor approved the piece. What happened?
Clearly? At Forbes.com contributors post articles on their own.Whatever editing happens at Forbes.com does so after the piece goes live, again, at least in my experience. I’m speculating a bit here, (but) what happens is editors scan headlines of posted pieces to see if there are any red flags and, if a hot piece begins to generate a lot of traffic, or motivate complaints, they hone in and take a more careful look at it. A conversation with my immediate editor after my resignation ended on a positive note: we saw each other’s perspective but cordially agreed to disagree.
Q) What changes did Forbes.com want you to make?
I was asked to make changes reflecting conventional journalistic practice. This, in addition to the fact that the requests were not applied consistently, does not necessarily make those changes right. Why, for example, should I lend a SeaWorld representative space to spout some boilerplate propaganda about orcas being happy in captivity? I’m sorry, but that’s not the kind of writing I want to do. I don’t write as an “objective” journalist, at least not in the sense of seriously entertaining the possibility that it might be fine for orcas to be held in captivity. I come at my work with a clearly defined, pro-animal perspective. In this case, the problem came down to (this): what’s reasonable for conventional journalism is a status quo that turns too many journalists into bullhorns for the power elite. My experience at Forbes.com led me to realize that much of the conventional media demands that writers assume this impotent role. I find that sad.
Q) Many people think you gave up a full-time job. True?
If you ever need a reminder that you shouldn’t trust everything you read get yourself into the news. Indeed, a trite sort of hero narrative developed around me, particularly around the idea that I fell on a financial sword for my principles. It’s a good story, and I did stick to my principles, but none of it is as dramatic or economically consequential as it appears. Forbes.com paid me a nominal fee to write for them. If anything, I can now make more money writing for publications that pay better than Forbes. I (also) have a day job: I’m a university professor. My advocacy for animals isn’t about money. It’s about doing what’s right.
Q) Is there any connection between Forbes and The Blackstone Group?
That’s easy to find out with a Google search. What I can offer is that the editor with whom I corresponded with at Forbes.com assured me there was no communication between Blackstone and Forbes about my story.
Q) What are your personal views on orca captivity?
SeaWorld has held between 60-70 whales in captivity. Ten of them, and maybe more, have caused harm or death to a human. In the wild, orcas do not harm humans. In all of recorded history there has been one orca attack on a human in the wild (non-fatal), and it was most likely an accident (surfer in a wet suit). So, I think that orcas should never be held in captivity. It’s always bad for orcas, often bad for trainers, and a cash cow for executives who will say anything to keep the veil over the truth.
Q) How can journalism advance this debate?
You can’t quote an animal for the animal’s perspective, but you can, and are often forced to, quote the perspective of the human who profits from that animal’s exploitation. I thus think it’s critical that writers covering issues involving animal rights cultivate audiences through non-conventional media outlets. If anything, my extensive experience in the mainstream media has, with some exceptions, driven home a depressing message: the rules of conventional journalism are rigged to allow powerful interests to quash the animal perspective.
Q) What’s next for you?
One of my favorite songwriters, Bill Callahan, has this great line: “You’ve got to bust up a sidewalk sometimes to get people to gather around.” So, in the spirit of that message, I’ll keep writing for the sake of the sentient creatures that deserve to be heard a lot more than the people who keep them in tanks and ask them to do flips for cash.