University of Minnesota officials apologized Friday for canceling the broadcast of a U produced film without consulting enough people on campus.
"I am sorry for this mistake, and I accept responsibility for my decisions and actions in this matter," said Vice President Karen Himle, who postponed the Twin Cities Public Television broadcast of "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story" without informing its producers or funders. The resulting uproar raised concerns about censorship and conflict of interest, and the U later reversed itself. The film aired at its originally scheduled time on Oct. 5.
Himle canceled the broadcast after reviewing the film over Labor Day weekend. In a written statement Friday, she said she consulted with deans associated with the film's subject matter, but "my mistake was in not immediately initiating a process that more broadly engaged academic leadership and other university experts."
Even though the film was within a few weeks of being broadcast, Himle said she should have worked with others to consider other options and make a "shared decision as to the best course of action."
The documentary explores the connections among farming, pollution and the Mississippi River. It also profiles farmers who use new technology or traditional conservation measures to reduce sediment that degrade water quality and nitrogen runoff that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone."
University President Robert Bruininks said Friday that he was "particularly disappointed in the turn of events surrounding the release of the film."
Bruininks expressed regret that the broadcast was canceled without convening a group to see if that action was justified. He also said that academic freedom is the "cornerstone of all great American universities."
E-mails behind scenes
Brian DeVore, communications coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project, said his organization stands by its previous call for Himle to resign. "Allowing a public relations official to arbitrarily cancel the showing of a publicly funded documentary is inexcusable and demonstrates that academic freedom at the U of M is at risk," he said.
The U's apology came on the same day it released hundreds of pages of internal e-mails in response to media requests under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.
The documents show that Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum, which produced the film, received the news at the airport before leaving for Europe.
"Sorry to ruin your vacation," wrote Al Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
Weller shot back, calling Himle's decision a "hyper-reaction," and asked who would explain the cancellation to the McKnight Foundation and other funders.
Himle declined interviews right after the controversy, but her e-mails explain some of the reasons for her decision. They also show she informed Bruininks about it promptly.
Himle, in the e-mails, said she found the film to be too much of an "advocacy piece for organic farming combined with an anti-farm-bill agenda." She also wrote that "I anticipate a legitimately negative response to this from sectors of our ag community."
Three weeks later, shortly before the U reversed its decision, Himle was still unhappy with the documentary, which she called "propaganda," and "a classic application of the techniques of filmmaker Michael Moore."
The e-mails showed no contacts or discussion with big agricultural associations, whose leaders have said in interviews that they didn't know about the film and did not try to influence Himle to cancel it.
The e-mails also show confusion even within the U about the shifting explanations for the cancellation. First, the stated reason was that the film was inaccurate and unbalanced, but its director and producer defended it and produced lists of scientists who were consulted.
Another reason was that it didn't meet the standards of the $349,000 legislative appropriation that helped fund it, but the funding commission had seen and endorsed the film. Later it was suggested that Weller, not Himle, decided the film needed to be canceled, but Channel 2 officials said the request came directly from Himle.
The excuses made it difficult for media spokespeople at the Bell Museum, the college and Himle's office to keep their stories straight. Referring to Daniel Wolter, the spokesman who issued most of the statements, one spokesperson wrote: "Dan has neatly shifted the responsibility away from Karen [Himle]."
The controversy also chafed relations with Channel 2, where vice president Bill Hanley was troubled by the decision. In an e-mail to her, Hanley said that he felt misled about the project and that it was initially "green-lighted for broadcast" without the normal level of oversight. "We likely won't make that mistake again," he said.
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388