When the University of Minnesota cancelled the Oct. 3 premiere of “Troubled Waters,” a film about the causes of pollution in the Mississippi River, it left donors and contributors asking why.
The University received $500,000 to produce an educational documentary on Minnesota’s waters. The result was a film about how farms and individuals can change their behavior to stop polluting the river, Bell Museum Director Susan Weller said.
Peabody and Emmy award-winning director Larkin McPhee was chosen to write, produce and direct the film, which was scheduled to air on Twin Cities Public Television on Oct. 5. It’s already been through a rigorous review, McPhee said, but now the University wants to take a second look.
When Karen Himle, head of University Relations, watched a copy over Labor Day weekend, what she saw unsettled her. The contents of the film were a long way from what the title, “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story,” led her to expect, Himle said.
Her concern began when she saw a commercial sign for Organic Valley’s dairy farm.
“Typically, in an institutional documentary you wouldn’t see a commercial interest,” Himle said.
A few minutes later the film walked through the practices of Thousand Hills Cattle Company. Both companies, which use alternative methods of farming, were shown favorably, Himle said. There was also a scene at the Walker Art Center that discussed local food.
“Now I’m thinking, well, OK, so now where’s the river? Because we’re getting an awful lot of commercial conversation,” she said.
That night she called Al Levine, a dean in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences to talk about the issues. Levine had already watched the documentary with the other CFANS deans and told her they also had problems with it.
Levine said questions were raised about the impartiality and the scientific accuracy of the documentary.
“I’m not a scientist in this particular area. I was just looking at balance, and it seemed unbalanced,” he said.
Greg Cuomo, CFANS associate dean for extension and outreach, said he thought the film “dramatized” the relationship between farming and river pollution and “vilified” agriculture without a strong understanding of how it works.
“They made agriculture look very bad,” Cuomo said.
Scientists are obligated to look objectively at both sides of a problem, he said. But he said he thought the film “drew strong connections to things that weren’t well supported.”
Abel Ponce de León, another CFANS associate dean who viewed “Troubled Waters,” scrutinized its scientific approach, calling it lopsided.
He said he did not judge the documentary for which side it advocated, but for a lack of “vital” information.
“The University is a place that tests all angles and opinions,” Ponce de León said. “We are not here to give one single opinion or choose an opinion.”
The group called for another review, though Cuomo said he didn’t know what the goal of a second look would be.
But, he said, there is an expectation of “scientific validity.”
If the scientists from CFANS had not also had an issue with it, the film would have gone forward as is, Himle said.
But because of the deans’ doubts, Bell Museum Director Weller is gathering a list of suggested researchers in water management, natural resources and production agriculture to review the film again.
She’s currently drafting broad questions that the reviewers will use to analyze the film. The questions will be checked by Levine as well as University Provost Tom Sullivan.
It is unlikely there will be major changes to the documentary, Weller said, and it will probably premiere in the spring. There has never been a similar delay at the Bell Museum in her two years as director.
Donors have been talking with the University and want to get the project back on track quickly.
The largest donation, $349,000, came from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and was allocated by a commission of legislators and government-appointed citizens.
The Legislature outlined its intent for the project, and the film met the goals, said Michael Banker, a spokesman for the commission.
“The film came across as quite balanced, and it appeared to show problems and a lot of solutions to those problems,” he said.
Despite having ownership of the film, the group was not told it was going to be held and has not been involved in the decision “at the level we’d like,” Banker said.
He found out about the delayed premiere from a reporter a week after the decision was made. When he asked Himle to provide her concerns, she did not give the commission any specifics.
Tim Hanrahan, spokesman for the McKnight Foundation, which gave the University $130,000 for the project, said those from the foundation who previewed the film were also satisfied with it. He said it met its grant requirements and seemed to line up with other independent scientific findings.
Balancing conflicts of interest
Since the postponement, the University has been accused of censoring the film because it critiques agribusiness.
Levine said people have made assumptions about the influence the agriculture industry has on the University.
“No one to my knowledge heard from anyone in big ag about this at all,” he said.
Himle lists her husband’s public relations firm, Himle Horner Inc., as an outside source of income on her University-required conflict of interest form. The company has represented the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, which lobbies for agribusiness. But Himle said that has “absolutely no bearing on this, absolutely none … Actually, my issues had nothing to do with any of that anyway.”
She said her primary concern was the lack of focus on the Mississippi River.
The Minnesota Agri-Growth Council was also listed on Levine’s conflict of interest form, under affiliated organizations.
For Weller, who comes from a hunting and fishing family, the potential conflict of interest falls on the other side. She said she has to be careful and remain fair in her reviewing and not act as an advocate of the environment.
“I’m not a pawn of agribusiness, but I can’t be seen as a pawn of the environmental green movement either.”
David Tilman, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, said he doesn’t think the University would have pulled the film to protect outside interests.
“I’ve never seen the [University] cave in from pressure from outside,” he said.
Tilman appeared in “Troubled Waters” to talk about the effects of nutrients on ecosystems and the impacts of agriculture.
After word got out that the documentary’s premiere was cancelled for further review, Tilman said he watched the preview copy he was given. It didn’t appear controversial to him.
“We need agriculture to provide food, a point the movie makes. Agriculture has some environmental impacts,” Tilman said. “All documentaries have to have a point of view. This was a proponent of the Mississippi River.”
But he said he thought the film presented scientific facts – “science as best we know it.”
-Ashley Bray contributed to this report.