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.

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

  1. Given the involvement of Tilman and Foley, it’s quite likely that the review is intended to prevent what happened with Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, which was found to be so inaccurate and biased that it cannot be shown to students in elementary school without a disclaimer.

    Al Gore is now in hiding for that, and a few other blunders, and likely the U of M doesn’t want to face a similar fate.

  2. This is front-page worthy. Would like to have heard from the Bell’s director — if, indeed, Wolter was correct in passing the buck in his/her direction. Also, I’d like to see more of an investigative follow-up, on whether other University of Minnesota research (or at least the results, thereof) has been shielded from public view.

  3. Of course it is. One suspects, expects that sooner rather than later The Truth Will Out. In fairness to Politics, it should itself not be blamed for such brazen power plays; but this is a good example of how Political power is commonly misused by Vested [read  Financial] Interests

  4. Good report, I still have 2 questions: what does the museum director have to say? or the museum’s public relations person? The director was referenced but not named.

    Contact them yourself and ask:

    Susan Weller

    Museum Director, Curator of Insects, and Professor of Entomology

    (612) 625-6253

    Nina Shepherd
    Coordinator of Media and Public Relations
    (612) 624-7389

  5. Seems like a lot of conjecture with no real info. Wht write this story??? It may make a great headline, but where’s the substance?

  6. Well-written article, indeed! Good scientists’ work incorporated and good scientific reviewing of the film’s facts and assertions. Excellent and respected filmmaker. The problem seems to be that someone doesn’t like the film’s facts, analysis, and conclusions about Big Agriculture’s polluting and ecologically-damaging practices. The VP at the U who pulled this film at the last minute for specious reasons: married to a man whose livelihood is based on representing Big Ag in Minnesota. Others aren’t talking. (Seen this before anywhere, folks?) Contact the Bell’s Director, friends, and make the appropriate stink about this outrageous behavior at the U. I would also contactPresident Bruininks, and the chair of the Board of Regents.

  7. Matt,

    The PR person is Dan Wolter. The Bell producer and director cannot speak to the situation. I called everyone you mentioned and was referred to Wolter for everything from here on out.

  8. University staff is no longer permitted to talk to press about this. They refer everyone to Dan Wolter, who says “the Bell wants to do a scientific review,” though Bell staff previously refuted that claim.

  9. … a major documentary, years in the making by an established filmmaker, vetted by independent scientists, about to premiere on TPT, is, on the eve of launch, pulled by the University. The U spokesperson misrepresents who pulled the plug (OK, lies) about who pulled the plug. The person whose name is on the letter pulling the plug has ties to corporate agriculture both through her own interests and her husband’s. That is the story. The role of big ag in suppressing the free flow of information. And the U’s role in abetting that.

  10. Great article.  It seems clear to me that the University caved into pressure from corporate ag interests that still want to claim that the dead zone in the Gulf isn’t due in large part to runoff from corn and soybean fields.  The University should apologize to the public and go ahead with the screening. 

  11. Thanks for covering this, Molly. This sounds like big business trying to decide what’s ‘true’ again. Please keep us informed! Are there any organized actions to pressure Bell and the U about this?

  12. I hope this will be pursued and peoples’ feet held to the fire.

    Anyone can easily enough see that protection/improvement of water quality has stagnated and the influence of big ag, and especially the ag chemical makers, is a key problem.

    I’d also like to see an investigation into the U of M’s promotion of the “biomass”  burning industry, which poses critical threats to air quality.

    Alan Muller

  13. Political chicanery equal to what you see in Washington.This kind of censorship has no place at a public university. I know politicians are all in the pockets of special interest lobbyists, but now I see that’s true of university administrators and professors, too. Maybe I’ve been wrong in advocating for more state money for the University of Minnesota. They can get everything they need from big business.They need to release this film NOW.

  14. Great story Molly, and thanks for getting it out. I second the previous comment encouraging you to stay with this story — feet must indeed be held to the fire. Conflicts of interest, overweening arrogance, money changing hands illegally, threats under the table – we just won’t know what’s going on until we know what’s going on, and apparently the U isn’t going to just tell us the truth, so we must rely on a free press and public outrage to find the truth. I thought the smoky back rooms of dirty politics were behind us in fair Minnesota — how naive of me!

  15. We hear a lot about free speech, but it appears that even a documentary triple fact-checked to “Nova standards” is still not good enough to be viewed by the general public. How are we to make informed decisions about our food supply, water ways, or environmental policy in general if the constituancy remains in the dark on these issues?

    It is dismaying that the University Public Relations department would thwart the film release, but not completely surprising. When it comes to leaders with regard to the environment and “green” initiatives the U is nowhere to be found. Seems to me the University should be setting an example by supporting free speech and scientific viewpoints, not quashing a film that might put a corporate polluter in a bad light.

  16. I’m incredulous.

    Where is the Bell Museum’s  leadership on this? What do “they” have to say? I assume it took tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, grants, and donations to produce this   documentary.  And now they’re just going to can the whole thing? What a terrible waste.

     Where does the Bell stand? DOES it have a stand? Why aren’t they talking?  Something smells fishy.  And it’s not the river.


    It’s not just big ag with their hands in University systems, and, despite their large invovlement in the Uof M, from the little I’ve seen of the policy world, they are definitely one of the less frequently called out players.  Also not sure that it’s the university caving to big business; the two are becoming more and more intertwined.

    As fate would have it, I was reading this article around the time of hearing of the Bell movie retraction.

    “The Kept University”Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn


  18. ahh — Today while doing volunteer shift at SAM for Mn FIlm Arts — I saw a flyer about this film and was pleased and hoped to attend.  I thought it was to be at St Anthony Main — but perhaps I just assumed this ??

  19. Big money interests, jobs, politics all rolled up in a nice ball. Do your research and read as much about the individuals and organizations as much as you can. If statewide elections are at stake then you can bet money that there are links to Washington DC and the national party organization. Don’t be afraid to contact reporters who have prior knoledge and perhaps a unique perspective on an individual you may interested in. Be rest assured if anything they will supperss any information at least till after the November elections.

  20. This is very disturbing, and if it is what it seems, I hope Ms. Himlie reaps what she has sown.  

    But I also want to caution my enviro-friendly friends that politicizing this too much is likely exactly what would make the ag lobby happiest.  

    It probably bothers the ag lobby that there is gathering scientific consensus about the damage corporate agricultural practices are exacting in the gulf of Mexico.  This is their way of casting doubt, and getting mainstream jouranlists to do the same thing they do with climate change – frame it as a “he said” “she said” story, because the lobbying firms are able to invent opposition that is not supported by the science.  

  21. Wow!  What a darn shame!  Put the facts out there (triple-checked mind you) and people in power can still deny them.  Sad to see that this can happen even in little old Minnesota.  I applaud you Molly and your staff for trying to get the information that the U obviously does not want us to have.  At least then they could trust that we would be able to make up our own minds.  But wait!  Can we do that in Minnesota?  Or do we have to let the U and big business do it for us.  I guess some people just believe it is easier that way.  I sincerely hope the U will make a truthful statement soon about canceling the showing and show the movie.  I know I am waiting to see it!

  22. Obviously, I haven’t seen the documentary, but this isn’t news to anyone who has the slightest knowledge about our system, or with respect to the nutrient loading in the MS, the state of the river.  How many books and documentaries have to be done to know we strongly affect the environment we exist in?  There probably are some reasonable, as well as unreasonable, reasons for delaying the release of this film.  The bottom line is this is just another ecological system (e.g. riverine) on the verge of collapse.  We all need to take a long, hard look at the way we live and make changes now.  That means you, me, and everyone out there.  Doing otherwise is theft from our collective future. 

  23. MPCA has a huge dataset on land and water pollution, and a broad coalition of scientists are indicating that Minnesota River nutrient loading from agricultural watersheds is the primary force behind the impaired waters listing of the Mississippi River at Lake Pepin.  Big ag lobbyists are ramping up to discredit this dataset.  This backlash against science and the MPCA coupled with a purported relationship between big ag lobbyists (aka public relations firms like Himle-Horner) and the Troubled Waters film,  can best be construed that big ag is running scared as more and more science is coming to show the environmental (and human health) disasters of their interests.  Big ag backlash sounds a bit like the big oil backlash against California clean energy policy through their Proposition 23 on the November ballot.

  24. Wasn’t Himle  appointed to th Pollution Control Agency for a term? She knows damn well what data is there about the river. The U fears that the repugs will

    win the governorship and they need the Agri-Growth Council to moderate Emmer’s


  25. Living in a South Central Minnesota where alot of the problems are steming from, I see the environmental impact on the water. I also see how local authorites may not be doing their part when it comes to ensuring septics are in compliance and farmers are using the best land use practices. When approached on this matter the MPCA told me compliance MUST come from the localities not them. So neighbors must turn in neighbors rather then having authorities validate compliance. If you know who is in compliance you must know who is not. I feel funds that are used for the “war on drugs” that by the way will never be won could be better utilized on environmental issues rather than filling up privatized prisons with non-violent offenders that are more then likely very good people. All rural communities could have updated water systems, all farmers could use up to date land use practices that reduce environmental impact. When the WATER is polluted is affects us ALL. When someone uses drugs the affects are isolated. See my point???

  26. It’s sad that some people will censor things that will affect the health of the people living in an area because of their own interests. It’s all politics, and it’s all dirty games. That’s why I didn’t become a politician.

  27. Why was this story pulled?  Nobody has a valid answer other than this vague “for scientific review”, which again, nobody can clarify.  If you were plugged into this issue and the powerful political influences around it you’d suspect; like many others do, that there’s an attempt to quietly kill it.

  28. Matt,

    Barbara Coffin, Bell’s Coordinator of Public Programs, said University Relations pulled the TPT premiere.

    The staff is no longer permitted to talk about it and has referred me back to Wolter for follow-up questions. This muzzling of staff is also suspicoius.

  29. Quit trotting him out to justify your bias.  He didn’t make this documentary and, to be clear, the fundamentals of “An Inconvenient Truth” are sound. Perhaps the truth is inconvenient to you.

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