It’s been bewildering observing University of Minnesota officials try to explain why they censored “Troubled Waters,” the documentary about pollution in the Mississippi River. The Twin Cities Daily Planet article that broke the story quoted University spokesman Dan Wolter saying the Bell Museum was responsible for halting its Oct. 3 release. Then, a Star Tribune article the same day laid the responsibility for cancelling the film on Karen Himle, who, as the Vice President of University Relations, works with Wolter.
The conflicts of interest hit the press, no thanks to the University disclosing them. Himle is married to the president of a public relations firm, which she lists as a source of income, representing the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. The Council is a proponent of ethanol production and industrial farming methods the film criticizes.
Why did Himle have any say about the documentary’s scientific validity? Wolter, in an e-mail, puts it this way: “As part of being reviewed by a number of offices, concerns were expressed about the scientific accuracy, objectivity and balance of the production.” Himle was consulted, but with many others, including Al Levine, the dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources. Levine is also affiliated with the Agri-Growth Council. He told The Minnesota Daily that the film seemed unbalanced.
Whether outside interests pressured the University to censor the film, directly or indirectly, the episode has been a public relations disaster, leading one Star Tribune commentator to ask this reasonable question: How can the VP of public relations be so ignorant about public relations? More transparency and less conflicts of interest are the way to move forward in the subsequent review process.