The U’s Shifting Story Line on Troubled Waters

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When the University of Minnesota announced late Thursday that the public showing of Troubled Waters was back on as scheduled, officials there were no doubt hoping this week-long PR nightmare would finally fade away. But now comes the hard part: explaining why the head of PR was allowed to declare a scientifically-balanced, professionally-produced documentary unfit for public consumption. Don’t expect any straight answers soon.

The release of the film is a testament to what happens when the people of this state make their voice heard—President Robert Bruinink’s office was flooded with calls and e-mails from angry citizens the past few days. Now the U needs to come clean on the particulars of this censorship disaster. But don’t expect any straight answers soon. Here’s why: the past seven days the U has shifted numerous times its story on why the film was unfit for public consumption and who made that decision numerous times. And officials there are still refusing to shoot straight.

Here’s a rundown of the U’s bouncing ball:

• WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 15: The Twin Cities Daily Planet reports that on the morning of Sept. 7 the producers of the film were informed by the Office of University Relations that the film would not air on Twin Cities Public Television and was to not be shown at the Bell Museum.The reason given for pulling the film was time was needed to review its “scientific content.” Later, the Planet updates its story to document in detail the deep connections Karen Himle, the U’s vice president for University Relations, has with agribusiness.

• THURSDAY, SEPT. 16: The Star Tribune quotes Martin Moen, associate director for communications and operations at the Bell, as saying Himle pulled the film because it needed further review. “Karen said a lot more but I can’t get into that,” Moen tells the Star Tribune‘s Tom Meersman. Daniel Wolter director of the U’s News Service, tells Meersman that the film was “delayed to allow for proper scientific and institutional review.” Wolter tells the Star Tribune Himle is not available for interviews, but that it was perfectly appropriate for her office to make such decisions. The office of University Relations sends out a statement saying further review of the film is needed to fit the specifications of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which provided the bulk of the funding for the film.

•FRIDAY, SEPT. 17: The Daily Planet‘s Molly Priesmeyer quotes LCCMR officials as saying they were never informed of the film being pulled and in fact had received no documentation about the decision when it was requested from Himle.

•FRIDAY, SEPT. 17: Al Levine, Dean of the U’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, tells MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill the film “vilifies agriculture.” He says he did not ask for the film to be pulled. Later in the interview, Levine says the film “isn’t inaccurate, but it’s unbalanced.”

•MONDAY, SEPT. 20: The Star Tribune reports that Himle pulled the film without informing either the LCCMR or the foundations that had funded the documentary. LCCMR director Susan Thornton tells the newspaper she had seen the film and had no problems with it. “I think it presents a balanced approach,” she said. “I think it might also speak to some things that people don’t want to know about or think about.” Barbara Coffin, head of the Bell’s film unit and and the executive producer of Troubled Waters, provides the Star Tribune a list of 27 scientists, 17 resource managers and extension educators, 10 farmers and nine science writers and communications specialists who were part of the film’s review process.

•MONDAY, SEPT. 20: Karen Himle describes to the Minnesota Daily in detail why the movie “unsettled” her. She claims it did not focus enough on the Mississippi and that it promoted “commerical interests” like Organic Valley. Levine is quoted in the same article as saying, “I’m not a scientist in this particular area. I was just looking at balance, and it seemed unbalanced.”An LCCMR official reiterates that the Commission found the film “quite balanced.”

•MONDAY, SEPT. 20: LSP issues an action alert late in the day telling people concerned about this issue to contact Bruinink’s office and demand the release of Troubled Waters, the resignation of Himle and a full investigation of the incident.

•TUESDAY, SEPT. 21: LSP members who have contacted Bruinink’s office report a disturbing pattern: the people answering the telephone are saying that the decision to pull the film was not made by Himle but by Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum. Callers were told that it was a “rumor” that Himle had pulled the plug. Weller had earlier issued a statement that the proper vetting procedure was not followed with Troubled Waters and that she took full responsibility for that error.

•TUESDAY, SEPT. 21: MinnPost reports on an incident in 2008 when Himle was involved with the vetting of an article for a University magazine that was critical of ethanol. The article was later killed.

•WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 22: Two Minnesota Public Radio reporters, Tim Post and Alex Friedrich, view the film at LCCMR headquarters. In a blog posting, they expressed puzzlement at why Troubled Waters is so controversial. Post calls Al Levine to get some specifics on why he felt the film “vilified agriculture.” Levine refers Post to Daniel Wolter, the University spokesman, who declines to comment.

•WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 22: The Star Tribune reports on LSP’s call for Himle’s resignation and explains that Himle had not responded to repeated requests for interviews and that the University seemed to be shifting its reasoning for why the film was pulled, saying everything from that it was not fair and balanced to that it did not meet the goals of the LCCMR.

•THURSDSY, SEPT. 23: Callers to Bruinink’s office are provided with a slightly different response than the day before. They are told the University is developing an “official statement” on the film. The Minnesota Daily editorial board publishes on its website comments from Daniel Wolters in which he says “upon further review, it was determined that this project did not follow the typical process” for ensuring “scientific integrity.”

•THURSDAY, SEPT. 23: LSP and 13 other groups send a letter to President Bruininks calling for the film to be released and for a thorough investigation of the incident to be undertaken. Within the hour the U of M issues a press release announcing that the showing of Troubled Waters will take place as originally scheduled. The release quotes Susan Weller as saying that she had obtained documents showing “a review process for the film had taken place.” She had concluded that there was no longer the need for “an additional faculty panel to review the film.”

Confused yet?

Sure, the media makes mistakes. But in this case, at least four different outlets have utilized a wide variety of sources—from spokespeople to deans to Public TV officials to Himle herself—to come to the same conclusion: Karen Himle pulled the plug on Troubled Waters and the lack of good science was not the reason.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I talked to Tom Meersman, whose stories have consistently reported that Himle was the would-be  film killer. His sources include people at the Bell, TPT and LCCMR. He was not pleased to learn that the U was starting to change their story on the person responsible. “That is incorrect,” he told me, and gave me a detailed accounting of who told him what when.

What gives? Why the changing story on why the film was canceled and who did the canceling? Well, we know the answer to the first question: U officials kept changing what was wrong with the film because they really couldn’t state the truth in public: Karen Himle, with her deep connections to agribusiness, didn’t like that the movie was asking some hard questions about what industrial ag is doing to our water. So they kept making it up as they went along, a real PR no-no that is also, by the way, pretty unethical at a public institution.

It’s clear that Himle has become a 30,000 volt lightning rod since this story broke and her deep connections to agribusiness became quite public. Apparently U officials did not predict that the public would immediately identify the conflict of interest involved with someone like her cutting a film related to agriculture and the environment.

The U’s handling of the Troubled Waters controversy has ranged from the incompetent to the comical. But it’s also outright dishonest.

The only way the U of M can begin making things right on this situation is to come clean on why and how the decision to pull Troubled Waters was made. Issuing false information right up until that last press release was sent Thursday shows that Bruininks and company aren’t even close to addressing this issue in an open and honest manner.

Contact President Bruininks’ office at 612-626-1616 or and tell him the trouble over Troubled Waters isn’t over until he, Himle and other U officials answer a few hard questions in the light of day.

2 Responses to “The U’s Shifting Story Line on Troubled Waters”

  1. Bob

    Thanks for another excellent article, Brian. You really summed everything up very well.

    Now I’m just hoping the TPT broadcast can happen (and sooner rather than later). I actually went to Morrill Hall earlier today and asked University Relations whether they were calling TPT but they referred me back to the Bell Museum. The Bell people said that they either are or will be talking to TPT but it’s up to TPT now. Ugh.

    And – yes – no matter what happens with the broadcast, we do need to get the truth somehow. Fortunately there now seem to be a lot of people both inside and outside the U who agree and will be pressuring the U to come clean.