Group calls for resignation of U official over spiked film

The controversy over the University of Minnesota’s spiking of a documentary about pollution in the Mississippi River is either a huge story, or has been managed into a huge story by the way it’s been handled. The U canceled the premiere of Troubled Waters, and then has issued — through released statements — differing specifics about the reason why, giving rise to assertions that it was to protect the interests of agriculture.

This afternoon, the Land Stewardship Project issued a news release calling for the resignation of Karen Himle, the university’s vice president of relations.

Here’s the release:

Calling her handling of the cancellation of the documentary film Troubled Waters an “outrageous affront to science in the public interest,” the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) today called for the resignation of University of Minnesota Vice President of University Relations Karen Himle. LSP is also calling for the film to be shown as scheduled in October and for U of M officials to execute a full review of how public relations concerns and corporate agriculture interests trumped the public good when Himle made the decision to pull the film.

“This appears to be a blatant example of the U of M putting corporate PR ahead of the public good,” said LSP’s Associate Director Mark Schultz.

“Whether the film was pulled because of direct pressure from corporate ag interests, or whether U officials did it of their own accord, the result is the same: censorship has seriously hobbled the school’s attempt to become a world class research and educational institution.”

On Sept. 15, the Twin Cities Daily Planet broke the story that Himle had canceled the premiere of the documentary Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story at the Bell Museum of Natural History Oct. 3, and on Twin Cities Public Television Oct. 5. The film, which was directed by Emmy and Peabody award-winning filmmaker Larkin McPhee, was funded primarily with public funds and made on contract for the Bell Museum.

It describes how excessive nutrient run-off from farm fields is a major contributor to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The film features interviews with farmers, top scientists and other experts, and shows how conservation-minded farmers of all types are working to limit or even eliminate runoff into our waters. Scientists, funders and others who have viewed the film say it provides a balanced, scientifically accurate portrayal of the dead zone issue, and offers real solutions for fixing the dead zone problem.

“Unfortunately, corporate ag interests, committed to the current system of mono-cropping corn and soybeans, are frequently intolerant of suggestions that farming changes are needed to improve water quality,”

said Schultz. “Even more unfortunately, certain U of M officials appear to be just as intolerant of open discussion of this issue.”

Since the canceling of the film’s premiere was made public, U of M President Robert Bruinink’s office has been flooded with phone calls and e-mails from Minnesotans concerned about this issue. Of particular concern is that Himle was allowed to pull a film on agriculture and the environment despite a clear conflict of interest. Himle is closely connected to corporate ag interests: her husband is John Himle, former director of the Agri-Growth Council, a corporate agriculture lobbying group, and he is currently director of Himle Horner, a PR firm that does work for the Agri-Growth Council.

Since the film’s cancellation was made public, U of M officials have changed their story repeatedly about why Troubled Waters is supposedly unacceptable for public viewing. An initial claim was that the film’s “science” needed to be reviewed by the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), the major source of funding for the project. However, LCCMR officials have said they found it “quite balanced.” University officials later admitted the film was scientifically accurate but claimed it was “unbalanced.”

“There is good work going on at the U on innovative ways we can produce food while protecting the environment,” said Schultz. “But this action around Troubled Waters has damaged the school’s research and education mission. If the U of M is to regain the trust of the state’s citizens as an institution that puts public interests ahead of corporate PR concerns, then it needs to take immediate steps to show the film and dismiss Himle.”

  • Marissa

    By “corporate PR concerns,” the Land Stewardship Project means donations and research grants. Quite the conundrum: bite the corporate hand that feeds or make a decision that could become a PR disaster and alienate alumni and the general public (who the U also relies on for $ through taxes and donations).

  • John O.

    Here’s a question for the U of M to ponder: If the documentary had been shown as originally planned, they would likely have been criticized by some of their corporate contributors and allied advocacy groups. However, it is likely this would have been done quietly in the plush confines of Morrill Hall. The documentary itself would have probably had some traction, but it would have had a shorter run in the news cycle.

    Hasn’t the administration from the U of M instead generated even more unwanted interest and publicity through its own actions?

  • Bob

    I just called President Bruininks office (612-626-1616) to voice my concern and was told that reports Karen Himle made the decision is a “rumor”. Several media sources and several Universtiy officials have made statments that clearly indicante Himle made the decision. Why does the U continue to misinform the public? When will they come clean?

  • John O.

    They certainly won’t call a presser, Bob. They do not want to risk having to answer any follow up questions about the sorry state of Golden Gopher football. 🙂