Who pulled the plug on University of Minnesota’s “Troubled Waters”?


[UPDATED 9/16/10—See box below.] Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story has been nearly four years in the making. A team of researchers, filmmakers, and scientists have been up and down the Mississippi River, knee deep in swamps and icy waters, and elbow deep in footage and research. The film, by the U of M’s Bell Museum of Natural History, focuses on agriculture, pollution, and sustainable solutions. Now, suddenly, its premiere has been canceled, and no one can say exactly why.

The documentary was scheduled to premiere at the Bell Museum on October 3. U of M president Robert Bruininks, who has been an adamant supporter of the conservation-focused project, was set to speak at the event. The film was also scheduled to broadcast on TPT on October 5.

Update: Conflict of interest?

After posting this story yesterday, I received an email from someone who wants to remain anonymous. “I have worked at the U in various capacities,” the note said. “This is *not* the first incident like this that I’ve heard of, by a longshot, though it may be the most dramatic.” They encouraged me to look into the Vice President of University Relations and her “very close (marital) relationship with a key player in Big Ag.”

While I knew that the TC Daily Planet would not publish an uncorroborated anonymous tip, it pointed my research in the right direction and I confirmed that the tipster was correct.

Karen Himle is Vice President of University Relations, which is the office that determined the film needed “scientific review.” She is married to John Himle, president of Himle Horner, a public relations firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. The Council is a strong proponent of ethanol and industrial farming, both of which are critiqued in the film. John Himle was also president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council from 1978 to 1982 and his organization currently serves as a “member” of the Council.

The University’s “conflict of interest” policy was called into question last year by the Minnesota Daily, which also cited Karen Himle’s summary of her outside sources of income as including Himle Horner and Nebraska farmland crops.
While Himle Horner’s client records are not public (something that has drawn the ire of some in the community as former co-owner Tom Horner is running for governor), Himle Horner was still representing the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council as recently as this summer.

I believe this was an important issue to note since it could present a serious conflict of interest and raises further questions about whether Big Ag is mounting pressure on the U to halt the film’s release for “scientific review.”

Himle Horner has also been in the news for coordinating publicity for the gigantic Big Ag bash at the 2008 GOP convention and, more recently, as co-founder Tom Horner launched an Independence Party candidacy for Minnesota governor and got favorable numbers from a poll conducted by a firm that Himle Horner also uses.

But on September 7th, just as invitations to the premiere were sliding into mailboxes, the U of M pulled the plug on the event and the TPT airing. According to Barbara Coffin, coordinator of public programs at the Bell and executive producer of Troubled Waters, the film was pulled from TPT by University Relations.

The producers at the U’s Bell Museum were informed that morning in a letter sent from University Relations: The film would not air on TPT and the party and premiere were shuttered. Later that week the Facebook invite for the premiere was updated to say the release was postponed “to allow time for a review of the film’s scientific content.”

But insiders believe someone is putting pressure on the University to pull the film–and no one within the University has a convincing story about who was responsible for pulling the film for “scientific review.”

According to University News Service director Daniel Wolter, the Bell Museum, which is part of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, is responsible for halting the release. “It was determined by the Bell Museum director and producer of the production,” he says. “We are an academic and science-based institution, and we want to ensure a production like this is scientifically sound.”

However, the film’s director, Larkin McPhee, said she never delayed the release or called for a scientific review. “I do not understand why the University postponed the film’s broadcast,” she said via email. “I am, along with many others, awaiting explanation from the U.”

What’s more, she and assistant producer Shanai Matteson, who also serves as community program specialist at the Bell Museum, contend that the film did undergo a scientific review and was extensively fact-checked to “NOVA standards.”

“We verified every fact with at least three independent sources,” Matteson says of the documentary project.

Matteson says that the film was also reviewed by as many as 12 prominent university scientists, including Jon Foley and David Tilman (both from the of U of M’s Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior department); Robert Diaz, a professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and an expert on “dead zone” issues in the Gulf of Mexico; Eugene Turner, a zoologist at Louisiana State University who has done extensive research on wetland pollution and coastal erosion; and Nancy Rabalias, another LSU professor whose research has dealt extensively with pollution issues in the Gulf of Mexico.

What “scientific content” is at issue?

An assistant in the U of M department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior said that Jon Foley worked on the project more than a year ago and couldn’t speak to why it had been postponed for further “scientific review.” David Tilman, another U of M professor who appears in the film and was part of the review panel, couldn’t comment either. His office referred me back to Wolter.

Tilman and Foley aren’t ones to shy away from controversy. Foley has been a huge critic of industrial agriculture, using satellite imagery to reveal its impact on the environment. And Tilman co-authored a 2007 op/ed column in the Washington Post,Corn Can’t Solve our Problems,” that raised plenty of eyebrows in the Minnesota Big Ag community, many of whom are big funders of the U’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences. At the time of the 2007 Washington Post op/ed, Tilman was already being criticized by the National Corn Growers’ Association for a study he published the prior year on the environmental impact of ethanol production.

Larkin McPhee

McPhee has made award-winning documentary films for twenty years. McPhee was hired by the Bell to direct “Troubled Waters.” A Minneapolis resident, McPhee’s previous work includes Depression: Out of the Shadows, a primetime PBS special on the illness of depression; Dying To Be Thin, a NOVA special on eating disorders; and Children By Design, one hour of an eight-hour PBS Series called Secret of Life on the marvels and perils of the genetic revolution. Her credits include NOVA, National Geographic Explorer, Smithsonian World, WNET TV, and the Discovery Health Channel. See her bio on the PBS website for more information.

When asked what aspect of the film raised red flags for “scientific review,” Wolter says he doesn’t know. “I am not sure there is much more I can say there … it just has been postponed.”

As a land-grant institution, the U of M is under increasing pressure to maintain its mission to serve farmers, a policy that has been in place since long before small farmers were supplanted by corporate entities. When asked if the film’s “controversial” subject matter–how corporate farming contributes to pollution–raised red flags, Wolter said this was an internal decision. “This is just an internal review process that the Bell called.” (Allen Levine, Dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences also could not be reached for comment.)

And when asked what other scientists are going to be part of the second review panel, Wolter also was unsure. “I don’t know,” he said. “My understanding was the Bell Museum would be responsible for that.”

However, the filmmakers say this isn’t true. “Shanai Matteson is correct in stating that the film already underwent scientific review,” McPhee says. “As with all my work, I am proud of this production and was honored to collaborate with so many researchers and scientists at the University. I look forward to having Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story reach the public as soon as possible.”


Clarification 9/16/2010: Jon Foley, the Director of the Institute on the Environment who was mentioned in the story as being part of the review panel, was involved with the production early in the process and provided research papers and contacts for people who ultimately appeared in the film. As stated in the story, he was involved in the film more than a year ago. Foley did not attend the review panels or provide the kind of detailed contents about the final project as the other professors mentioned in the story did.

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