Forbes.com cans blogger over an article praising the documentary Blackfish, which exposes awful animal cruelty at SeaWorld. Forbes, by the way, is partially owned by the same investment firm that owns SeaWorld. How… odd.
Blogger James McWilliams contributed thirteen pieces for Forbes.com—however, his latest piece, on the documentary exposé on Seaworld Blackfish, is his last. His relationship with Forbes ended when McWilliams decided to push back against managerial attempts to censor his SeaWorld piece.
Apparently, Forbes.com hoped McWilliams would portray SeaWorld, a 2.5 billion dollar corporation, in a softer light. The piece, in which McWilliams calls Blackfish his pick for “best documentary of the year,” notes the powerful blow the low-budget documentary delivered to the amusement park giant, which is partially owned by the Blackstone group, a multi-billion dollar private equity and investment firm.
In Death at SeaWorld, Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, author David Kirby is quoted saying, “SeaWorld used to be the darling of the media.” Perhaps the decision makers at Forbes found this all to be a bit too close for comfort?
Whatever the motivation, McWilliams balked at their suggestions, resulting in his piece, which garnered 77,000 hits in 24 hours, being taken down from the site. He then issued this public explanation for his departure from Forbes:
Well folks, I suppose it was bound to happen. I wrote a dozen pieces for Forbes.com and enjoyed it very much. But the 13th–an article critical of SeaWorld (a 2.5 billion dollar company partially owned by the Blackstone Group) and praiseworthy of ‘Blackfish” (made on a small budget)–rattled some corporate cages.
After I posted, management demanded changes that I could not, in good conscience, make. So the article got pulled (after 77,000 hits in one day) and I left my position. Honestly, the experience, brief as it was, was a good one. Until today, when it wasn’t.
McWilliams is being applauded for his honesty and conviction, while Forbes, SeaWorld and the Blackstone group have suffered another black eye. At the New Year’s Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, SeaWorld’s float had to be escorted by dozens of police in anticipation of a protest organized by PETA. It’s another nail in the coffin for the corporation’s previously-pristine public image—as McWilliams’ the original Forbes piece states, SeaWorld’s stock price has dropped “as much as 25 percent.”
But even though Forbes may have censored McWilliams’ article, the documentary Blackfish and its unmistakeable scenes of horrific animal abuse have already permeated both the public mind and the PR-conscious business world. How long can SeaWorld even last now?
[Addendum: This morning McWilliams posted another note tempering his previous one, perhaps with an eye to the non-disparagement clause in whatever contract he may have signed with Forbes?:
The other thing to note is that I did not leave under conditions of animosity. There was little drama in this drama. I’m not going to go into the details, but I was hired to blog and it became clear in the Blackfish piece (and hinted at in some earlier ones) that Forbes.com is more interested in bloggers writing stories that stick to conventional reporting tactics rather than writing with an opinion to advance (as I do).
In related news, SeaWorld just got caught fixing the results of a poll about Blackfish at the Orlando Business Journal. Oops.]