On September 15, one of Minneapolis’ best local news sources, The Twin Cities Daily Planet, broke the story that the University of Minnesota had quashed the opening of a new documentary about sustainable solutions to water pollution, titled Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story.
Molly Priesmeyer’s terrific article asked all the right questions about this strange decision on the university’s part. After all, the U of M’s own Bell Museum backed the making of the movie and was the host for the debut (scroll down on the Bell’s Facebook page and see how excited they were about the flick). So who specifically made the call to delay the opening? And why? What could the problem possibly be with a documentary about a river?
It didn’t take long for many of these questions to answer themselves, since Priesmeyer’s story had drawn the intensifying interest of bigger and bigger Twin Cities media outlets by week’s end.
As it turns out, the film’s U of M sponsor, Bell Museum of Natural History, is part of the U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and last Friday night, the Dean of that school, Al Levine, told MPR that the film’s unveiling was postponed because the documentary “vilifies agriculture.” (He also called Troubled Waters “unbalanced.”)
At issue? The U of M had “scientific concerns” about the movie’s treatment of U.S. conventional agriculture’s role in creating the Gulf of Mexico’s famous hypoxic dead zone.
But in an unfolding media disaster for the U, it became clear that the decision to delay the documentary’s debut wasn’t Levine’s alone. Indeed, according to Levine, it wasn’t solely his idea to silence the film, if that’s what you media jackals are thinking. According to MPR:
Dean Al Levine says he did not ask for the premiere to be postponed. Karen Himle, the University’s Vice President for University Relations, told MPR News she discussed the matter with Dean Levine and the two of them agreed it should be postponed until it could be reviewed by a scientific panel.
This deet that the idea probably came from Himle first was corroborated in a follow up piece by Priesmeyer in TC Daily Planet. Other funders of Troubled Waters told Priesmeyer that problems with the documentary were expressed from one source only: Himle. “To the best of my knowledge, it appears that the concerns and requests to halt the film rose from the Office of University Relations,” said Michael Bank, whose group Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, issued a $349,000 grant for the making of Troubled Water. “So far, Karen Himle is the only one who has been in communication with LCCMR about concerns.”
So why did Himle contact Levine about the movie? Why did a veep of public relations run point on “scientific concerns”? Priesmeyer offers this explanation:
[Karen Himle] 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.
I love and respect Molly Priesmeyer’s reporting on this issue, but I’m not totally sold on this particular conclusion. I really don’t think this is about Himle’s “bias” or even Big Ag strong-arming the university, which many have implied on local forums. Indeed, I think that argument actually lets her and the U of M off the hook. Remember, a raison d’etre for University Relations (Himle’s office) is “maintaining strong connections with the University of Minnesota Foundation,” a key source of gifting, donations, and fund raising for the university, and with a veep of Cargill on the Foundation’s board, it’s pretty clear to me that by flagging a potential threat to the U of M’s “strong connections” to companies with ethanol interests, Himle was doing exactly what her office was designed to do.
Regarding the Gulf’s dead zone, consider what Cargill is facing from scientists these days. A National Academy of Sciences 2008 study was clear on the problem of the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone as it pertains to the growing acreage of corn in the United States (Fair Food Fight discussed it cheekily here). It concluded:
The results of this study suggest that the projected expansion of corn-based ethanol production could make the already challenging goal of reducing nitrogen export [to reduce the size of the dead zone] by the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico practically impossible without radical shifts in feed production, diet, and agricultural land management.
Cargill has a veep on the U of M Foundation Board.
All of this or none of this may have been part of Himle’s thinking. But if I had her job, and suddenly the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences was tied to a movie that steps any where near connecting corn-based ethanol production decisively to the Gulf’s eco-disaster, that promotes radical shifts in agricultural practices (organic farmers were profiled in Troubled Waters), or implied that the corn industry makes reducing nitrogen exportation impossible — well, yeah, I’d consider yanking that movie, too. Anybody in her position would, with or without a spouse connected to Big Ag. Arguably, jumping on movies like Troubled Waters is exactly why the Office of University Relations was created.
That said, someone needed to pull Himle back from the brink. The time for delaying this film and putting it before a panel of experts was long passed by the time they were scheduling a debut. Indeed, those in a legal position to judge it, the documentary’s funders, signed off on it, and, as it turns out, while Bell Museum backed the movie, the U of M apparently doesn’t even “own” Troubled Waters, according to Molly Priesmeyer. So what right would the U have to pull in a panel of experts to review its science? Thanks to Himle’s knee-jerk, let’s-pull-it reaction, the university may now suddenly find itself on very shaky legal ground.
Of all the wide-ranging questions in this story, “Who wants to tangle with First Amendment implications?” may be the most crucial right now.
Himle may indeed have thought she was maintaining good relations with longtime U of M donors, but Brian DeVore of the Land Stewardship Project, writing in Loon Commons, has the takedown on that: The U of M is also a publicly funded institution. Minnesotans, therefore, have a stake in U of M matters and have a right to contact U of M President Robert Bruininks and let him know that (a) Karen Himle’s office has overstepped its bounds by our estimation, (b) “university relations” extend to Minnesotans who might not work for Cargill, and (c) we want to make up our own minds about this movie’s merits, thank you very much.