A walk through the Troubled Waters controversy

troubledwaters

The whole film flap in six easy bites

For those of you coming late to the University of Minnesota’s Troubled Waters drama — and/or trying to understand the e-mail dump I chronicled on Friday — here’s a boiled-down version of the story and its main issues — with links:

  1. What “Troubled Waters” is: An environmental documentary by the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum about the pollution of the Mississippi River — and the Gulf of Mexico downstream — concentrating on the role of fertilizer and erosive farming techniques. The film explores methods that farmers have used to alleviate the problem.
  2. What happened to it: Early last month, the University of Minnesota canceled at the minute the film’s early October airing on Twin Cities Public Television, as well as its debut at the Bell. The Twin Cities Daily Planet broke the story, and reported the conflicting reasons university officials gave for its cancellation. After a prolonged public outcry, on Sept. 23 the U announced it would go on with the showing. The film debuted as planned at the Bell on Oct. 3, and aired Oct. 5 on television.
  3. What the flap is about: Some skeptics have raised questions over whether the university pulled the film because it angered corporate farming interests, or because U officials feared a corporate ag backlash. That was fueled in great measure by that fact that the woman who canceled the film, Vice President of University Relations Karen Himle, has ties to corporate ag interests through her husband. Her skeptics say the move represents a conflict of interest between her university and agricultural ties, but university officials say no outside interests played a role in the cancellation. Some critics say the delay reflected a desire to censor the movie, a move that would have threatened academic freedom at the university. That said, some did see flaws and conflicts within the film itself.
  4. Why the film was pulled: It’s too early to say, and we might not ever know for sure. The U released about 2,500 pages of requested e-mails, correspondence and documents on Friday, and it has been too soon to go through everything. Also, a number of e-mails have been redacted — at times with dates and whole paragraphs removed. A number of U ag deans had issues with the balance and information in the film, one of them saying the film “vilified” agriculture. But an initial look at university e-mails gives the impression that it was Himle — who labeled the film “propaganda” — who was far and away the official most critical of the film. She appeared to be concerned with, among other things: the focus of the film, its highlighting of organic farming, “infomercial”-like use of company names, and stance toward the federal Farm Bill.
  5. What the fallout has been: The flap has arguably been a PR mess for the university. The administration has been criticized for the mysterious nature of the last-minute cancellation, its failure to explain itself to key players, its dodging of critical questions, and its release of conflicting explanations of what happened. In an Oct. 15 press release, Himle apologized for the way she handled the issue, and President Bob Bruininks said he regrets that academic and university leaders had not been first convened to resolve questions about the film. That was the same press release in which it announced it would release the e-mails.
  6. How to view the film now: The Land Stewardship Project is showing the film Oct. 25 a the Parkway Theater, but word is that’s filling up. Twin Cities Public Television has it available for viewing online. Also, the Bell Museum sells the DVD for $19.95.