Premiere of U film suddenly up in the air

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2010 - 10:01 PM

It's unclear why a university VP canceled the TV debut of the Mississippi River documentary.

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Postcard for "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story"

"Troubled Waters" is the name of a new documentary about the Mississippi River, but it also describes the turmoil at the University of Minnesota about the cancellation of the film's scheduled premiere and broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television.

Karen Himle, vice president of university relations, informed the U's Bell Museum of Natural History last week that she canceled the film's Oct. 5 broadcast on TPT. The decision so close to the airing and Oct. 3 premiere screening at the museum has disappointed and dumbfounded those who produced and funded the program.

Martin Moen, associate director for communications and operations at the Bell Museum, said he could not elaborate on why the program was pulled. "Karen said a lot more but I can't get into that," he said.

Filmmakers under contract to the museum produced the documentary, "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story," during the past two years with about $500,000 in state lottery proceeds and foundation grants. Among other topics, it details pollution problems in the Mississippi from farm chemicals and other sources, and profiles both conventional and organic farmers who are making changes to reduce runoff and improve water quality.

Daniel Wolter, director of the University of Minnesota News Service, said that several university officials and faculty previewed the documentary, and raised questions about whether it is "factually accurate, objective and balanced in its presentation" and meets the goals of public funding. "Accordingly, the premiere was delayed to allow for proper scientific and institutional review," Wolter said.

Fact-checking galore

The decision drew quick reaction from Brian DeVore, communications coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit group that works closely with farmers on sustainable agriculture. DeVore said he had seen a recent version of the documentary, and that it "bent over backwards to be fair to farmers," while presenting real problems and promoting on-the-ground solutions. "This is outrageous," DeVore said. "I'm not sure why public relations at the U is making decisions about what scientific information is released. It's pretty troubling."

Wolter said that Himle was not available for interviews, but that it's perfectly appropriate for her office to make such decisions. Himle did so after consulting with Al Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, he said, which oversees the Bell Museum.

The film's director, producer and writer Larkin McPhee said that scientists at the U and elsewhere reviewed the project extensively at all stages of production. "My training was at National Geographic Television, so I've always adhered to a very rigorous fact-checking process," McPhee said. She has won Peabody and Emmy awards during her two decades of documentaries on topics that include Chernobyl, the Mississippi's great flood of 1993, gene therapy, eating disorders and personal finance. "In all my years of working with PBS on national productions -- and this one was locally produced -- I've never had a film more closely scrutinized already," McPhee said.

Funders of the documentary have asked to meet with university officials to learn what happened.

"We don't know what's going on," said Ron Kroese, environmental program director for the McKnight Foundation, which contributed $130,000 to the documentary over a two-year period. Kroese said he viewed the program recently, and it seemed fair and balanced and consistent with a 2008 study about the Mississippi River by top scientists at the National Research Council.

Another $349,000 for the project came from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Bell Museum officials said that they are now charged with reviewing the film, but Moen said he doesn't know yet what the issues are, who will do the reviewing, or how long it might take. The controversy has sparked considerable chatter on Facebook, Twitter and various e-mail lists. Much of it speculates that Himle pulled the program because large-scale farming groups complained. Some have expressed displeasure publicly in the past when university research and projects raised questions about environmental problems and conventional agriculture.

Wolter said the concerns and action about "Troubled Waters" came only from within the U. "There was no influence from outside to not broadcast this," he said.

Katie Nyberg, executive director of the Mississippi River Fund, which contributed $25,000 to the documentary, said she is troubled by the decision and still waiting to hear a better explanation. University President Robert Bruininks is on the fund's board and was slated to speak at the Oct. 3 screening premiere, she said, which has also now been canceled.

"Our fear is it'll get shelved," Nyberg said. "It's a great production and a lot of people in our state and beyond are going to learn a lot from it."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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