Dan Wolter’s explaination of Troubled Waters censorship

Justin Horwath

The public clearly isn’t happy about the University of Minnesota’s censorship of Troubled Waters. Yesterday, the Land Stewardship Project, a private non-profit advocacy group for small agriculture, called for the resignation of Karen Himle, the Vice President of University Relations who called TPT to cancel the documentary’s October 5 airing. In an e-mail exchange with the Editorial Board, University spokesperson Dan Wolter said that Himle will not be involved in the second round of scientific review of the documentary, which is good, considering her ties to the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.

The University’s explanations of why it censored the film have been changing as frequently as the weather, and we thought it’d be valuable to put Wolter’s official explanation to us on record. In it, he notes that Himle indeed made the call to TPT to cancel the film’s airing, but that doesn’t mean it was her decision.

“As I’m sure you can appreciate, the person who makes the telephone call is not necessarily the one who made the decision,” he writes, without outright saying Himle is indeed one of those people.

She was, however, the person who called Al Levine, CFANS Dean, on Labor Day weekend, who Wolter notes was one of the officials who wanted to pull the film, along with the Bell Museum’s director. Levine also has ties to the Agri-Growth Council, and, as David Brauer of MinnPost.com reports, the University has booted a story critical of big ag. before.

The e-mail was prefaced with this question from us: “We were curious why you told TC Daily Planet—in its initial report—that the Bell Museum was responsible for halting the film’s release, when, on the same day, the Strib reported that it was Himle’s call. Don’t you two work together?” (The Strib report was actually a day after the TC Daily Planet story that broke the issue).

Here’s Wolter’s reply:

“The review being assembled now is a scientific review, so those involved will have primarily scientific backgrounds. Vice President Himle will not be part of this process. As Bell Museum Director Weller has said, upon further review, it was determined that this project did not follow the typical process the Bell Museum uses for exhibits and productions, which is a researcher to oversee the production’s scientific integrity from beginning to end. This review doesn’t have any pre-determined outcome, but is simply intended to correct an oversight.

And second, my comment to TC Daily Planet was indeed correct. As part of being reviewed by a number of offices, concerns were expressed about the scientific accuracy, objectivity and balance of the production — as well as whether it was responsive to the legislative appropriation. Your own paper today has a number of academics who expressed those concerns. The decision to postpone the premiere was indeed done by Bell Museum director Weller and Dean Levine (to whom the Bell reports) in consultation with others (including Vice President Himle and others, including those quoted in today’s Daily). Vice President Himle, as VP for University Relations, is the one who made the call to TPT as she’s the one with the contacts there and that also falls into her job responsibilities. As I’m sure you can appreciate, the person who makes the telephone call is not necessarily the one who made the decision. As she said in your paper today, she did indeed have concerns about the production, particularly what appeared like commercial promotion of private businesses.”

Last Friday, we had called Himle’s office for an interview. But a secretary had said that Himle had already talked to the Daily. We explained that, like most newspapers, there is a firewall between the opinion section and newsroom. Alas, we never heard back from Himle; Wolter said on Monday that she was in meetings all day. Although Wolter never talked to us over the phone–he almost always communicates with the Editorial Board strictly through e-mail, which is odd for a public relations official whose job is to communicate and clarify the institutional stance of the University to the press–he did forward us an e-mail on Friday with this news release. “In case you didn’t see this,” he wrote. “The key point is underlined for you.”

In it, the second paragraph was underlined, save its last sentence. It’s a statement from Dr. Susan Weller, director of the Bell Museum. 

“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.” Molly Priesmeyer of the Twin Cities Daily Planet, who saw the film, notes that the University hasn’t responded to a Daily Planet request for a copy of documents outlining that policy.