Saturday, September 18, 2010

Troubled Waters Indicates

Deep DooDoo

at the U?

By the waters, the troubled waters of the Mississippi

We sat down and wept,

and wept, for thee, University of Minnesota

We remember, we remember,

we remember thee, University of Minnesota

It's always nice to see that NewScut is interested in more than the Pornographic Beaver of Bemidji...

[We've seen Mr. Collins before on the Periodic Table. He has a tendency to run off at the mouth and then get all defensive when someone calls him on his nonsense...]

From MPR:

The attempts of the university of Minnesota officials to explain why they canceled the premiere of "Troubled Waters," a documentary about the Mississippi River and the pollution therein, couldn't possibly get any more clumsy.
From the time the story broke in the Twin Cities Daily Planet this week, university officials have paid the price for trying to get ahead of a story, which alleged undue influence by big agriculture, by releasing information in small pieces from different people, who often were unavailable for questions. It's harder to find the smoking gun of influence that way, true, but it's easier to notice that each person telling the real story, is telling a somewhat different real story.
The university is a land-grant institution which exists partly to serve agriculture. The film was made under contract to the Bell Museum of Natural History. The Bell is part of the university.

On Friday, Susan Weller, the Bell's director, explained why she pulled the film:

"Our standard procedure at the Bell Museum is that our exhibits and educational products have at least one researcher who oversees the project's scientific integrity from inception to completion. Unfortunately, this procedure was not followed by the Bell Media unit for production of the documentary, 'Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story.' As Director of the Bell Museum, I am responsible for ensuring these standards are followed, and I regret our error in this case.

Late on Friday, MPR reporter Stephanie Hemphill brought another story to the story. The dean of the U of M's School of Agriculture -- the Bell Museum is part of the School of Agriculture -- said the reason the film was pulled was because it "vilified" agriculture.

Dean Al Levine said the film opens with a lot of drama, and spends too much time discussing agricultural pollution before considering any other sources of water pollution.

"Agriculture is a major contributor to these issues, we know that," he said, noting the film takes a half-hour to talk about other sources of runoff, such as cities or lawn chemicals.
Levine says the film isn't inaccurate, but it's unbalanced. He said it should have included scientists who are trying to figure out how to feed 9 billion people by 2050.

Read that statement again. Levine reveals the issue is actually editorial, not scientific as the U of M had asserted earlier in the day. He says it's not inaccurate, but that the film should have included scientists who are trying to figure out how to feed 9 billion people in 2050. But that's not science, that's perspective and that's what asserting editorial influence looks like. What's the basis for asserting editorial influence? The money that produced the documentary.

Levine's suggestion seems to be that the Gulf's "dead zone" may be the trade-off for preventing hunger. And maybe it is. It would make a great documentary about the environmental cost of eradicating hunger.

A person who has seen the film says it was fair. But he has a perspective, too. He's with an environmental organization.

And that's part of the problem. This isn't independent journalism. [debatable] It's not a documentary. [debatable] It's an infomercial

[Incredible statement for a person with even pretensions of being a journalist to make. When Mr. Collins wrote this absurd post, he had not even seen the film.]

and the debate is over which self-interest will own its soul. That's what often happens when a combination of private and public money -- often with its own intent -- is used to contract with an organization that may have "skin in the game," to produce a piece that will end up being shown on public television under the label of journalism. Any time the word "promote" appears in a mission statement for any editorial project -- it does in this one -- it disqualifies itself from that classification.

The process in this case is not how journalism works. It's how advertising works. It's too late now for "Troubled Waters." [I don't think so...] By the time this film airs on television -- if it ever airs on television -- it will have little integrity [Sorry, but Ms. McPhee has plenty of integrity, just look at her work and where the films she has made have been placed] because the process that created it is too polluted. The larger question now is how many other "documentaries" around here are produced the same way? [Have any suggestions? Please make them. Do not denigrate all documentaries and lose the quotation marks please...]

The author of this piece is, as usual, half right. And the piece is definitely worth a read. But I am afraid he has already declared the film dead and useless without ever having seen it. Is this good journalism?
Added later:

I attempted to place the last paragraph in the comment section on MPR. So far this has been unsuccessful. I guess censorship is ok some places but not others? From the comments section come some telling remarks, such as:

"It's not a documentary" ? Are you kidding ? Please give an example of what you think *is* a documentary. You have not seen this film. I have. And I am neither an environmentalist nor a member of the Big Ag community. This is most definitely a documentary and not an infomercial.

All documentaries have a point-of-view. Even if there is no narration and no sound added - what is shot and how it's edited implies a point-of-view. It is impossible to make a documentary film that has no bias.

A comment like "it will have no integrity" implies that you are acting as a columnist who just wants to incite readers to respond (I guess that worked). It doesn't show much rational thought.


ALL documentary film making contains a point of view. That's why public television's documentary film series is called P.O.V. The question is not whether it has a point of view, but whether it backs up its assertions with facts and allows the viewer to understand that perspective. Which is what journalists are supposed to do as well!

I'm afraid that the fact that you have not seen the film makes your assertions about its integrity irrelevant.


The director of the film is the person you are leaving out. You presume she has ceded control; she has not. She has stated in no uncertain terms that she has made every effort to be accurate and fair.

It was the University's Public Relations arm that yanked the film from TPT and the premiere, questioning her integrity, her professional judgment and the expertise of all the people she consulted. The fact that the film was funded by a variety of foundations does not negate its "documentary" value or even its journalistic integrity, any more than the fact that a for-profit organization like a newspaper or a "non-profit" organization like MPR negates the journalistic integrity of the pieces it publishes.

At stake is how you are characterizing the "editorial" process; the film's director and its funders are angry because their work has been labeled without any public justification, and is being subjected to the scrutiny of an unnamed panel of "experts." All the experts in the film are named, but those who claim they are not doing a good job are not. THAT is one of the issues that angers me.

Again, the fact that you have not seen the film means you have no way to judge what it actually does; you are making assumptions about the vetting process that confuse an educational documentary film (commissioned for the purpose of being an educational documentary film) with your ideas about journalism. They are not the same thing.


Bob, you can't label Larkin McPhee's film an "infomercial" in your piece and then tell me I have to leave her out of the discussion!

Or the fact that the Dean of Ag, who is the boss of the Bell Museum Director, by the way, has labeled a film we haven't seen as "villifying agriculture"!

She is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker, and her work is being discredited in public by a PR screw-up that violates the norms of academic freedom as well as journalistic integrity. The public (AND those who work or study at the U!) has a right to be upset about this. It's appalling!

Have some individuals at the U exceeded their mandate and screwed up the appropriate process? you betcha! But they are tarnishing our confidence in the PROCESS, not the film itself and its integrity. How can we know what the film does or does not do if we are not allowed to see it and judge for ourselves?


This is ridiculous to say the film is hopelessly compromised. That people with an economic interest, not just a point of view, stopped the premiere is the real story. So what if the process is bad? More qualified reviewers can be found, supporting evidence can be presented. By the standard advocated here, no documentary can ever be credible if a moneyed interest objects.


So it's not a documentary unless a journalist is making it ? That would be news to the acclaimed and award-winning documentary filmmakers who are/were not journalists (e.g. Ken Burns, Albert Maysles, Jacques Cousteau,etc).

And "Its content can no longer be trusted" ? Because Dean Levine and others were afraid that it would offend their Big Ag buddies ? So you're saying that as long as the people who distribute/own a documentary bring up objections to the content then the content can no longer be trusted ? That makes no sense.

Apparently the Public Relations people were just doing what Dean Levine and others told them to do. Dean Levine apparently *did* want her to deliver an infomercial ; one that praised the merits of Big Ag. The fact that it doesn't do that is a positive sign - not a negative one.

The director of "Troubled Waters" won a Peabody Award for her previous film ("Depression: Out of the Shadows"). That film presented an intense and controversial subject but also was very positive in tone. So is "Troubled Waters". It talks about the problems of agricultural runoff (and other pollutants) but it also features actual farmers who are doing things differently and polluting less. It it not just a "doom and gloom" report on what's wrong.

And - yes - I have seen this film but I am not one of the producers or funders.


Bob - this is a response to your earlier post:

"It doesn't matter whether I have or have not seen the film. The editorial process to which it's now subjected makes it impossible to know which part of it is the journalism, and which part -- if any -- was a compromise in deference to financial and other influences."

Yes - I agree. If this film was now modified because of the Dean's (and others) objections AND we were not told WHICH parts were modified then YES - that would indeed pollute the entire film.

Which is why it must be seen by the public WITHOUT being modified. The fact that you leaped right to "the integrity of this documentary has been fatally compromised" without wanting to see it yourself or calling for it to be seen is very telling.


How is "Troubled Waters' (which neither of us has seen) different from grant-funded work MPR (or MinnPost) does?

You criticize the use of the word "promote" in TW's mission statement, but it's actually a fairly anodyne use of it: "promote watershed understanding and citizen action in protecting, restoring and conserving water resources." I suppose promoting action raises red flags, but that's not proscriptive and it's not a whole lot different than the citizen understanding (and maybe even motivation to action) that we journalists promote.

I suspect MPR (and MinnPost) would respond that, yes, the money comes from somewhere, but then the *journalists* take over. Here's where I perceive a weakness in your argument -- though I am very open to seeing it another way. Why is Larkin McPhee necessarily different from Bob Collins and Chris Worthington, or David Brauer and Joel Kramer? I'm not convinced she isn't.

What does seem to be different is what happens from there - non-journalists get involved in the final approval. But at least at this point, I don't think that's Larkin McPhee's fault OR (potentially) the doc's fault.

So while it may be that TW's process is non-journalistic, TW itself may be journalistic as hell, and people are fighting the non-journalist overlords to let journalism happen.


Mr. Collins:

Don't you have a compost heap to turn over?


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