Saturday, September 18, 2010

Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Weighs In On

University of Minnesota's Pulling Plug

On Controversial Film

Kudos to the Morrill Hall Gang for another pr disaster...

Troubled Waters - Troubled U

When the Daily Planet revealed this week that the U of M has pulled the plug on the premiere of an important film about farming and the Mississippi River, it wasn’t just another hint that corporate powers are calling the shots at the state’s ag college. It was also a troubling peek into just how willing some officials are to allow those shots to be called, perhaps even before the trigger’s been pulled.

I viewed a near-finished version of the film last spring, and was extremely impressed. It did an excellent job of laying out the problem and then showing how average people—farmers as well as the general public—can use a combination of innovative production systems, good policy and creative market forces to fix something that is causing major problems both here and a thousand miles downstream.

As a result, the film’s producers bent over backwards—almost to a fault—to make the film as fair and scientifically accurate as possible. McPhee is no amateur on a mission. She’s done work for, among others, NOVA and National Geographic Explorer, entities known for their strict adherence to scientific standards.

Troubled Waters is not an anti-farmer screed. In fact, it carries a very positive message: that farmers are part of the solution right here in our own back yard.

Why was the film’s release blocked at the last minute? The official word via spokespeople statements and press releases is that the film needed “further scientific review” because it’s an LCCMR-funded project. When reporters at the Daily Planet, Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio asked for specifics about what was scientifically wrong with the film, they were met with a lot of double talk, “I don’t knows” and plain old stony silence. (Molly Priesmeyer has written an excellent follow-up article in the Daily Planet on how the LCCMR is being kept in the dark by U officials on the future of the film as well; apparently being a legislative commission doesn’t gain you any more respect from certain U officials than being a member of the press or general public).

As one Minnesota farmer (and U of M grad) said after learning of the film-yanking: “Show the film and let the people of Minnesota decide. What are they afraid of?” Maybe they’re afraid the public will learn there’s a difference between what farmers think about the environment, and what corporate ag thinks. They aren’t one and the same...

Remember, the U of M may own the rights to the film, but we all have ownership in the U. That means we have a right to see Troubled Waters.

In the frenzy of media coverage that’s emerged since the original Daily Planet story broke (by the way, what a relief to learn that investigative journalism is not dead in Minnesota), everyone from Daniel Wolters to John Himle has claimed that there was no outside pressure to cancel the premiere. If that’s true, then it’s even more frightening—that means University officials censored an important documentary of their own accord.

Insiders who have worked with the University’s public relations arm say that during the past four years this particular division has taken unprecedented steps to control the flow of information that comes out of classrooms, laboratories and test plots. University Relations seems to utilize one simple criteria for whether U information is released to the public: “Will it please or upset large corporations?” That criteria may be appropriate at Cargill or General Mills, but it doesn’t belong at a land grant institution that serves the people of Minnesota.

Given that, perhaps Big Ag didn’t even have to lift a finger when it came to Troubled Watersmaybe certain decision makers within the U took the initiative to kill the messenger themselves. Self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship.

Whatever the source of the squashing—inside, outside or in the middle—this is an embarrassment for a world-class public institution. This smells like a rat, and in order for our University of Minnesota to clear the air, it needs to come clean. That begins with answering some key questions:

Who ultimately made the decision to yank the premiere, and why was it done at such a late date?

What were the specific “scientific questions” that prompted a call for a review?

Who raised these questions?

• The Bell has announced that “qualified faculty” will review the film.

Why weren’t the previous reviewers qualified?

Who decided they weren’t “qualified”?

Who will pick the new reviewers?

Contact U of M President Robert Bruininks and tell him the way this whole situation has been handled is unacceptable, and the only way to start making things right is by answering the above questions in a forthright manner.

He can be contacted at or 612-626-1616.


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