Industrial Ag Pressure at the U—An Inside Job

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Throughout the Troubled Waters brouhaha, U of M officials have maintained that there was “no outside pressure” to censor the film. E-mails and other documents obtained through an LSP Data Practices Act request show that no overt pressure was needed: deans, vice-presidents and communications staffers as far back as April bent over backwards to make sure Big Ag was not offended by the Bell Museum’s film. And the U’s powerful PR head, Karen Himle, was only too willing to take the lead in suppressing what she saw as an “anti-nitrogen/anti-farm bill/pro-organic farming advertisement.” As we’ve argued in this blog previously, self-censorship is the most insidious kind. Here’s a sampling of how it works:

• On April 14, Kristin Weeks Duncanson, vice chair of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council’s board of directors, wrote an e-mail to College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) dean Al Levine describing her impressions of the film. This e-mail is significant because someone at the University felt compelled to share as early as last spring (without the filmmakers’ knowledge) a cut of the movie with a major player in corporate agriculture. Duncanson is a past president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, which in 2008 temporarily pulled $1.5 million in funding from the U of M after having a fit over research by U scientist David Tilman showing environmental problems with biofuels. Agriculture deans pay attention to things like that.

Duncanson gave the film a close viewing, and had numerous concerns, including that, “The comments regarding the Farm Bill could be very dangerous for the University”and that it holds up “the joy and salvation of the organic farmer and grass fed beef to solve the nutrition problems of people and containment [sic] problems in the river.” Duncanson, who concedes that she personally finds Tilman’s research interesting, sees his presence in the film as a major lighting rod for
controversy: “No matter what the guy says the Corn and Soybean folks will be upset—He could be delivery [sic] money from the “Prize Patrol” and those guys will slam the door.”

That said, Duncanson does not condemn the movie outright, and finds “some merit to it—just needs some tweaking.” Duncanson Comments 4-14-10 No. 2

• Further evidence that U officials were extremely mindful of Big Ag’s reaction to the film emerged in an Aug. 10 e-mail written by Martin Moen, the communications director for the Bell Museum. The e-mail contains the draft of a communications plan for promoting the film. It includes plans for informing “agricultural leaders about the film’s broadcast so they are not taken by surprise.” But the most telling element about the e-mail is that Moen, a former communications director for CFANS, calls it a “crisis communication plan” — implying that a  film about agriculture’s role in polluting the Mississippi is already a major problem for certain University officials. Barbara Coffin, executive producer of Troubled Waters, and Bell Museum director Susan Weller object to the use of the word “crisis,” and Moen removes it without comment. Crisis Comm. Plan 8-10-10

• On Aug. 13, Levine provides Weller an “historical” explanation for why “crisis” was considered a proper moniker for the plan: “Things rise to the President’s office and we have meeting after meeting for weeks on end. It’s much worse than most would understand.” He goes on to describe a meeting involving U President Robert Bruininks: “I can remember when we had to meet f2f with the President and the soybeans [sic] and corn growers. The claims were that articles in Science had no peer review!” Nothing like a little history of “outside pressure” to squash future intellectual inquiry. Levine-History of Pressure 8-13-10

• An Aug. 9 e-mail written by Coffin shows the lengths  to which she and the rest of the film’s team, including director Larkin McPhee, went to document the science in the film. She describes in detail the “rigorous protocol” the film adhered to, which McPhee had used in the past when making films for PBS and NOVA. Part of that protocol was to get two sources for each piece of scientific information presented in the film. Coffin’s e-mail shows that she and McPhee were not naive when it came to the hot button issue of ethanol, and had taken pains to present arguments on both sides. This e-mail also shows that it was unclear who exactly was questioning the science of the film, making it difficult for Coffin to figure out who to respond to. Coffin letter on science 8-9-10

• Bruinink’s response to Coffin? Check in with Himle, Levine and Weller “and other leaders” on how to “address the issues.” Bruininks Letter to Coffin 9-10-10

• It should be kept in mind that despite concerns over the reaction the film would garner from the “agriculture community,” people like Levine were not calling for it to be yanked. In a Sept. 8 e-mail to President Bruininks that turned out to be quite prescient, the agriculture dean writes, “stopping the film will appear as censorship.” This document also contains an e-mail from Himle to Bruininks, where she describes the film as “a significant disappointment” that vilifies everything from nitrogen fertilizer to the plowing of the prairie. Levine to Bruininks 9-8-10

• Levine’s Sept. 8 warning came too late: Karen Himle had already pulled the plug. Although she had been invited to review the film during the summer, the vice-president didn’t get around to taking a look at it until Sept. 6. In an e-mail sent at 5:57 a.m. on Sept. 7 to Bill Hanley at TPT, Himle writes that the film has “some pretty big troubles.” She goes on to outline what she thinks those problems are: “…the vast majority of the piece is an anti-nitrogen/anti-farm bill/pro-organic farming advertisement. I’m not joking, Bill.” (Himle to TPT 9-7-10 ) Later in the day on Sept. 7, Himle called TPT and officially told them to pull the film from the station’s schedule. Himle’s take on the film is eerily similar to Duncanson’s review some five months earlier. But Himle apparently didn’t watch the film as closely as the Agri-Growth official did: in a Sept. 6 e-mail to Levine and director of U of M Extension Bev Durgan, the PR vice-president claims that, “Mainstream production agriculture is totally absent” from the film. (Himle-‘ugh’ to Levine 9-6-10) In fact, extensive portions of Troubled Waters were devoted to large-scale crop farmers in southern and southwestern Minnesota.

• On Sept. 9, Weller informs Coffin that the Bell is postponing its own premiere of the film until spring 2011. Himle’s decision to yank it from TPT had caught Weller off guard and she told Coffin she felt she had no choice put to put the Bell showing on hold as well, despite the fact that advance publicity for the screening had already gone out. “One of the factors that has contributed to my decision is that I have been told that one of the biggest supporters, President Bruininks is now alarmed by the film’s content,” writes Weller. Coffin’s response: “…how has he formed his opinion?” Coffin Letter to Weller 9-9-10

• A Sept. 28 note written by Himle to Board of Regents secretary Ann Cieslak (Subject: Personal and Confidential) provides an insight into how Bruinink’s opinions of the film were formed. In an e-mail that has a large portion blanked out by U officials, Himle explains that after the news of the censorship broke, the President wanted to “issue a statement” and “put this behind us.” But Himle explains to Cieslak how she spent nearly three hours convincing Bruininks that the film was a bigger problem than he thought it was. “As I peeled way the layers and described the various roles of the players his demeanor changed and he was quiet,” wrote Himle. She then goes on to provide a somewhat perplexing comparison between the film and the experiment involving Ivan Pavlov’s  famous dog. One wonders if Himle revealed the layers that represent her conflicts of interest when it comes to industrial agriculture? Himle Email 9-28-10

• The U received a stinging reminder that “pressure” can come from other places as well. In a Sept. 17 e-mail sent to Levine and an official involved with the U’s telemarketing fundraising efforts, a CFANS alum said, “I am very disappointed” with the pulling of the film. As a result, the angry alum had canceled a recent donation. An e-mail exchange between U of M Foundation officials made it clear they took such notes seriously, and had even stopped fundraising calls to CFANS alums temporarily. Upset Alum 9-17-10

These e-mails provide yet another glimpse at what happens when self-censorship and conflict of interest become the status quo at a land grant university. It’s a toxic mix, one that can only be cleaned up by dismissing a certain public relations vice-president and undertaking reforms that make protection of academic freedom priority number one. The U must also take a serious look at why sustainable and organic agriculture is being treated as a second class citizen at the institution. As a recent Agri News editorial asked: “Does the U of M have a favorite? Is that why they canceled the film?”

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