When the Daily Planet revealed this week that the U of M has pulled the plug on the premiere of an important film about farming and the Mississippi River, it wasn’t just another hint that corporate powers are calling the shots at the state’s ag college. It was also a troubling peek into just how willing some officials are to allow those shots to be called, perhaps even before the trigger’s been pulled.
Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story documents how excessive nutrient runoff from farms in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest are creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The film, which is directed/produced by award-winning filmmaker Larkin McPhee, then goes on to show how “sustainable” and “conventional” farmers in this state are using innovative systems to reduce the nitrogen and other nutrients that are making their way into the Mississippi, and eventually to the Gulf.
I viewed a near-finished version of the film last spring, and was extremely impressed. It did an excellent job of laying out the problem and then showing how average people—farmers as well as the general public—can use a combination of innovative production systems, good policy and creative market forces to fix something that is causing major problems both here and a thousand miles downstream.
McPhee and the others involved with the film project were very aware of how controversial the dead zone issue is. Just as there is a small, vocal group of global climate change deniers out there, business and political forces within the agribusiness community claim there is no connection between Midwestern farms and dead oysters in the Gulf. This, despite an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary.
As a result, the film’s producers bent over backwards—almost to a fault—to make the film as fair and scientifically accurate as possible. McPhee is no amateur on a mission. She’s done work for, among others, NOVA and National Geographic Explorer, entities known for their strict adherence to scientific standards.
Troubled Waters is not an anti-farmer screed. In fact, it carries a very positive message: that farmers are part of the solution right here in our own back yard.
But for now, you’ll have to take my word for it. That’s because, just a few weeks before it was to premiere on Twin Cities Public Television and at the Bell Museum of Natural History, University officials announced the release of Troubled Waters was to be put off indefinitely. The film was made on contract for the Bell (which is part of the U’s ag college) utilizing a combination of private foundation and public monies, including significant funds through the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Why was the film’s release blocked at the last minute? The official word via spokespeople statements and press releases is that the film needed “further scientific review” because it’s an LCCMR-funded project. When reporters at the Daily Planet, Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio asked for specifics about what was scientifically wrong with the film, they were met with a lot of double talk, “I don’t knows” and plain old stony silence. (Molly Priesmeyer has written an excellent follow-up article in the Daily Planet on how the LCCMR is being kept in the dark by U officials on the future of the film as well; apparently being a legislative commission doesn’t gain you any more respect from certain U officials than being a member of the press or general public).
Consider this Star Tribune quote from Martin Moen, associate director for communications at the Bell: ” ‘[Moen] said he could not elaborate on why the program was pulled. ‘Karen said a lot more but I can’t get into that.’ ” Boy, does that statement leave a whole lot unanswered.
The “Karen” Moen refers to here is Karen Himle, vice president of university relations for the U of M since 2006. According to the Star Tribune article, she was the one ultimately responsible for pulling the plug on the film. Unfortunately, Himle was “not available” for interviews to provide us specific insights into what she thought was wrong with the film. (By the way, since when is the head of public relations at a public institution “not available for interviews”? That’s like saying a cop is “not available to enforce the law.”) This leaves people like Daniel Wolter, director of U of M’s News Service, telling media that it’s “perfectly appropriate” for Himle’s office to make decisions on what information is released by the University.
No doubt corporate agriculture approves of that assessment. It turns out Himle is the wife of John Himle, CEO of Himle Horner Inc., and a former executive director (1978-1982) of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. Himle Horner, a “public relations, crisis management and public affairs” firm, has had numerous agribusiness clients over the years. The December 2008 issue of the Agri-Growth Council’s newsletter did a “Member IN Focus” feature on Himle Horner.
Minnesota Agri-Growth, true to its name, is one of the biggest promoters of an industrialized, corporate model of agriculture in Minnesota. Its list of directors reads like a who’s who of corporate ag. Agri-Growth is anti-local control, pro-factory farm and opposes even the slightest questioning of the industrial model of agriculture. Needless to say, the Agri-Growth Council does not like it when connections are made between large-scale industrial ag and the Gulf dead zone.
We don’t know what role, if any, Karen Himle’s connections to corporate agriculture played in denying Troubled Waters a public viewing. And that’s the problem: all the decisions made around “Filmgate” were executed in secret at a place that is supposed to be quite public. Even Larkin McPhee was bushwhacked by the decision.
The issue of the Gulf dead zone is almost irrelevant at this point. No matter what the topic, and no matter how controversial it is, the real issue here is that it appears the public relations department of a land grant university is being allowed to override the work of scientists, farmers, concerned citizens, and yes, professional filmmakers.
As one Minnesota farmer (and U of M grad) said after learning of the film-yanking: “Show the film and let the people of Minnesota decide. What are they afraid of?” Maybe they’re afraid the public will learn there’s a difference between what farmers think about the environment, and what corporate ag thinks. They aren’t one and the same, no matter what PR spin firms like Himle Horner generate.
Remember, the U of M may own the rights to the film, but we all have ownership in the U. That means we have a right to see Troubled Waters.
In the frenzy of media coverage that’s emerged since the original Daily Planet story broke (by the way, what a relief to learn that investigative journalism is not dead in Minnesota), everyone from Daniel Wolters to John Himle has claimed that there was no outside pressure to cancel the premiere. If that’s true, then it’s even more frightening—that means University officials censored an important documentary of their own accord.
Insiders who have worked with the University’s public relations arm say that during the past four years this particular division has taken unprecedented steps to control the flow of information that comes out of classrooms, laboratories and test plots. University Relations seems to utilize one simple criteria for whether U information is released to the public: “Will it please or upset large corporations?” That criteria may be appropriate at Cargill or General Mills, but it doesn’t belong at a land grant institution that serves the people of Minnesota.
Given that, perhaps Big Ag didn’t even have to lift a finger when it came to Troubled Waters—maybe certain decision makers within the U took the initiative to kill the messenger themselves. Self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship.
Whatever the source of the squashing—inside, outside or in the middle—this is an embarrassment for a world-class public institution. This smells like a rat, and in order for our University of Minnesota to clear the air, it needs to come clean. That begins with answering some key questions:
• Who ultimately made the decision to yank the premiere, and why was it done at such a late date?
• What were the specific “scientific questions” that prompted a call for a review?
• Who raised these questions?
• The Bell has announced that a review of “qualified faculty” will review the film. Why weren’t the previous reviewers qualified? Who decided they weren’t “qualified”? Who will pick the new reviewers?
Contact U of M President Robert Bruininks and tell him the way this whole situation has been handled is unacceptable, and the only way to start making things right is by answering the above questions in a forthright manner. He can be contacted at UPres@umn.edu or 612-626-1616.