The trouble over ‘Troubled Waters’

The attempts of the university of Minnesota officials to explain why they canceled the premiere of “Troubled Waters,” a documentary about the Mississippi River and the pollution therein, couldn’t get more clumsy.

From the time the story broke in the Twin Cities Daily Planet this week, university officials have paid the price for trying to get ahead of a story, which alleged undue influence by big agriculture, by releasing information in small pieces from different people, who often were unavailable for questions. It’s harder to find the smoking gun of influence that way, true, but it’s easier to notice that each person telling the real story, is telling a somewhat different real story.

The university is a land-grant institution which exists partly to serve agriculture. The film was made under contract to the Bell Museum of Natural History. The Bell is part of the university.

On Friday, Susan Weller, the Bell’s director, explained why she pulled the film:

“Our standard procedure at the Bell Museum is that our exhibits and educational products have at least one researcher who oversees the project’s scientific integrity from inception to completion. Unfortunately, this procedure was not followed by the Bell Media unit for production of the documentary, ‘Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story.’ As Director of the Bell Museum, I am responsible for ensuring these standards are followed, and I regret our error in this case.

Late on Friday, MPR reporter Stephanie Hemphill brought another story to the story. The dean of the U of M’s School of Agriculture — the Bell Museum is part of the School of Agriculture — said one reason the film was pulled was because it “vilified” agriculture.

Dean Al Levine said the film opens with a lot of drama, and spends too much time discussing agricultural pollution before considering any other sources of water pollution.

“Agriculture is a major contributor to these issues, we know that,” he said, noting the film takes a half-hour to talk about other sources of runoff, such as cities or lawn chemicals.

Levine says the film isn’t inaccurate, but it’s unbalanced. He said it should have included scientists who are trying to figure out how to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

Levine reveals the issue is actually editorial, not scientific as the U of M had asserted earlier in the day. He says it’s not inaccurate, but that the film should have included scientists who are trying to figure out how to feed 9 billion people in 2050. But that’s not science as much as perspective and that’s what asserting editorial influence looks like.

Levine’s suggestion seems to be that the Gulf’s “dead zone” may be the trade-off for preventing hunger. And maybe it is. It would make a great documentary about the environmental cost of eradicating hunger.

A person who has seen the film says it was fair. He has a perspective, too. He’s with an environmental organization.

That’s part of the problem. This isn’t independent journalism. It’s not a documentary. (Add) If content is changed by those outside the production process (/add), it’s an infomercial and the debate is over which self-interest owns its soul. That’s what often happens when a combination of private and public money — often with its own intent — is used to contract with an organization that may have “skin in the game,” to produce a piece that will end up being shown on public television under the label of journalism or backed by its journalistic credibility. Any time the word “promote” appears in a mission statement for any editorial project process — it does in this one — it disqualifies itself from that classification. (Update: I acknowledge that a documentary is not by definition journalism)

The process in this case is not how journalism works. It’s how advertising works. Perhaps iit’s too late for “Troubled Waters.” By the time it airs on television — if it ever airs on television — it may have little integrity because the process that created it is too polluted. The larger question now is how many other “documentaries” around here are produced the same way?