Slow Motion Train Wreck: The U of M’s attempt to muzzle “Troubled Waters – A Mississippi River Story”

Troubled Waters is a documentary film that explores the unintended consequences of commercial agriculture and urban runoff on the health of the Mississippi River and the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Beginning with struggling fishermen in the Gulf, the film travels upstream to highlight the sources of agricultural and urban runoff that impact the health of the river, its ecosystem, and the communities that call the River home.

The film also highlights steps that farmers and citizens are taking to improve the Mississippi River and its watershed.

The Controversy: The U of M’s Embargo

The film, developed in partnership with taxpayer support through the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources and The Bell Museum, was originally planned for release on October 3rd, 2010.

In late September, The Twin Cities Daily Planet revealed that Karen Himle of the University of Minnesota Public Relations Department apparently instructed the film’s producers at the Bell to cancel the premier without first informing the film’s funders or providing an explanation for the embargo. University officials amplified the ensuing controversy with a series of inconsistent and conflicting explanations for the films cancellation.

In the days that followed, allegations surfaced suggesting that corporate agricultural interests within the University’s College of Food, Agriculture and natural Resources influenced the cancellation. (Himle is married to John Himle, who’s public relations firm represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council). Amidst public outcry at the U’s failure to provide a valid explanation for the film’s embargo, Himle’s office refused further media interviews on the subject despite her role as the U of M’s primary public relations officer.

On September 23rd, amid increasing public pressure and scrutiny, the University reversed itself and agreed to screen the film as planned on October 3rd at the Bell Museum. That screening featured 2 full-house sessions at the Bell Museum auditorium, followed by a pair of lively panel discussions. Troubled Waters also premiered on Twin Cities Public Television on October 5th and 6th.

The Aftermath

While the controversy surrounding the film yielded additional media attention and public interest, serious questions remain about the U of M’s attempted embargo of the Troubled Waters release. In particular, what role do corporate agricultural interests play in influencing public interest research at our Universities? Can U of M public relations officials be trusted to allow the academic freedom for our University’s scientists and researchers? Given the apparent improprieties associated with the film’s embargo, will U of M President Bob Bruininks hold his staff responsible for their interference in the film’s release? And perhaps most importantly, how can the public be sure that the University will take action to prevent similar interference in the future?

The controversy has brought attention to water quality issues caused by agricultural runoff as well as the powerful interests that would prefer to keep the current state of affairs hidden from the public eye. FMR Executive Director Whitney Clark offered his commentary in a recent editorial to the Star Tribune.

See For Yourself

While these questions remain unanswered, Minnesotans of all walks of life can finally see Troubled Waters – A Mississippi River Story. The film is available for purchase at the Bell Museum, and additional air dates are planned on TPT.

In addition, FMR and our partners at the Land Stewardship Project, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Twin Cities Media Alliance are planning a public screening of the film in the near future. This screening, which will be free and open to the public, will be followed with a community dialogue with a panel of experts on water quality and agriculture.

Note: FMR’s screening was originally scheduled for October 25th at the Riverview Theatre in Minneapolis, but has been postponed. FMR members will receive an invitation to the rescheduled event as soon as more information is available.

  1. Star Tribune: Premiere of U film suddenly up in the air
  2. TC Daily Planet: Who pulled the plug on University of Minnesota's "Troubled Waters"?
  3. Pioneer Press: University of Minnesota sidelines pollution film for review but denies suppression
  4. MPR: U of M dean says 'Troubled Waters' film 'vilifies agriculture'
  5. MN Daily: U delays debut of film on Mississippi River Pollution
  6. KARE 11: U of M cancels broadcast of "Troubled Waters"
  7. MinnPost: A wall in front of 'Troubled Waters' — the U of M and its contentious documentary
  8. MN Daily: Editorial: Troubled U relations
  9. MN Daily: Opinion: Outrage over Troubled Waters censorship
  10. KARE 11: "Troubled Waters" screening to take place as originally scheduled”
  11. MN Daily: ‘Troubled Waters’ to air on original date
  12. Pioneer Press: U to screen 'Troubled Waters' after all
  13. Public News Service: Future is No Longer Murky for U Film “Troubled Waters”
  14. Star Tribune: U-produced farming film is cleared for showing
  15. TC Daily Planet: "Troubled Waters" — You can see it!
  16. Star Tribune Editorial: David Mulla: 'Troubled Waters' tells only part of the water-quality story’ (Note: Mulla’s opinion piece contains a number of factual inaccuracies and misleading statements)
  17. Star Tribune Editorial: Troubled Waters Producers Barb Coffin & Larkin McPhee’s Response to Mulla article
  18. Star Tribune Editorial: Whitney L. Clark: Now that we're paying attention to water quality

For further information about the water quality issues raised in the film, please contact FMR Watershed Program Director Trevor Russell via our contact form.