A wall in front of ‘Troubled Waters’ — the U of M and its contentious documentary

The University of Minnesota looks to be embroiled in what could be a growing public relations disaster. The source? A documentary film, produced by the U’s Bell Museum, about pollution in the Mississippi. The documentary, titled “Troubled Waters,” details Minnesota’s contribution to pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. The documentary was supposed to be shown on Oct. 5 on Twin Cities public television, but then it was unscheduled. How? According to a story by Tom Meersman of the Star Tribune, “University vice president of relations Karen Himle canceled the airing two weeks ago without informing any of its nonprofit and public funders beforehand.” Meersman interviews Barbara Coffin, head of the film unit at the U’s Bell Museum of Natural History, who says, “[A]n impulsive late-hour decision to pull the film from broadcast was made without wide internal discussion.”

But why would Himle cancel the film with such short notice and without broader discussion? Stephanie Hemphill at Minnesota Public Radio has more of the story. Hemphill’s lede: “The Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences says a film produced by the Bell Museum about pollution in the Mississippi River ‘vilifies agriculture.’ “

According to the story, this dean didn’t find the film to be inaccurate but questions its balance. MinnPost’s David Brauer investigates the University’s ties with the Agri-Growth Council, an agriculture lobbying group, although he notes that the dean and and Himle deny any pressure from the group. Molly Priesmeyer digs a little deeper into the process by which the screening was spiked in the Daily Planet, and notes that the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which was one of the major funders for the project, was never told about the screening being spiked and has yet to receive any detailed complaints about the film.

The Minnesota Daily’s editorial page makes no bones about its opinion on this, noting the appearance of conflicts of interest and the lack of transparency in the process. “How can the VP of public relations be so ignorant about public relations?” they ask. And while Himle says she wants the film to be reviewed for accuracy, it has, in fact, already been vetted, and nobody has offered up any accusations that the film is not factual at all. It’s easy to see why The Daily took issue with Himle, as the whole affair has the feel of an institution suppressing information for no reason other than political inconvenience, which is not the sort of behavior you want from an educational and research organization, especially a publicly funded one.

The timing is rather miserable as well, as we are one month away from the gubernatorial elections, and one of the candidates, Republican Tom Emmer, has called for cuts to higher education. This is not the time for the University to be making itself unsympathetic, and even if the complaints about the documentary are valid — which is yet to be demonstrated — the process has rightfully created many critics. Fortunately, both the DFL candidate and the IP candidate have positioned themselves as being supporters of higher education — as MinnPost’s Eric Black reports, IP candidate Tom Horner spoke Monday at the University’s Humphrey Institute. As he has consistently done, Horner described himself as being the reasonable middle on various political topics, especially focusing on education. From the sound of things, Horner’s reasonable middle involves keeping funding for higher education stable, rather than decreasing it. It’s worth noting here that Pawlenty slashed the budget for higher education, and so while Horner wouldn’t be cutting further, in a lot of ways what he is promising is to keep funding at Pawlenty’s reduced level.

Questions about budget dominated an AARP-sponsored gubernatorial debate on TPT, which, from the description provided by the Pioneer Press’s Dave Orrick, sounds as though it was mostly Horner and Emmer duking it out, with DFL candidate Mark Dayton watching passively from the sidelines. According to moderator Mary Lahammer, recalling the debate on MinnPost, Dayton did repeatedly signal that he wanted to talk, using “quiet hand cues.” Note to future gubernatorial candidates: Quiet hand cues don’t work.

With only a little over a month until the election, we’re going to start seeing some hardball tactics appearing. Heck, one need only look at a recent flier from the AFL-CIO, discussed by Minnesota Independent’s Andy Birkey. “That mailer references the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge, which killed 13 and injured 145,” Birkey writes, “and overlays it with Emmer’s voting record.” The mailer states the following: “Tom Emmer won’t fix Minnesota’s problems. He’ll make them worse.” Yow! With friends like that, who needs quiet hand cues?

WCCO’s Pat Kessler applies one of his “Reality Checks” to the claims made in two televisions ads that Mark Dayton supports something called an “email tax.” He declares these ads MISLEADING, in all caps, as is his way. Misleading how? Well, Dayton once proposed a micro-tax on email. Back in 2003. As a way of curbing spam. And it never went any further than being a proposal, and wouldn’t have affected anybody except people who send out millions of spammy emails with a single click. Later, when he sponsored a “computer users bill of rights,” he opposed taxing email. That was March 6 of 2003. So, yes, the ads are a little misleading.

Michele Bachmann has a new ad, and she’s finally dumped “Jim,” her fictional spokesperson, when opponent Tarryl Clark kept throwing real Jims at her, all from Bachmann’s district and all of whom opposed Bachmann. The congresswoman’s new ad, which can be viewed on Minnesota Independent, takes a more direct approach. Bachmann ties Clark to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a favorite target of conservative ire (and the ad chooses an especially unflattering photograph of the speaker), and concludes with this simple message: “Tarryl Clark: Another Big Spending, Big Taxing Job Killer.” Charges against Clark in the ad are that she cast the tie-breaking vote for a $425 million tax increase. This didn’t really have anything to do with Pelosi, mind you — Bachmann is referencing Clark’s vote on the 2010 Senate tax hike bill, which Pawlenty later vetoed. Bachmann’s ad also claims that Clark organized a rally for higher taxes at the “Minnesota State House.” It’s not clear what Bachmann is referencing here, as we at the Glean can find no Clark-organized rally so that people can converge on the House and demand higher taxes, but perhaps the event was so sparsely attended and poorly promoted that nobody knows about it.

WCCO discusses Clark’s own new ad, in which Clark discusses cutting back her own salary (per diem, actually) and staff to address budget shortfalls and demands that Bachmann do the same. Bachmann responded by saying it’s not up to her — her budget is set by the House. It’s not as cut and dried as that, according to the WCCO story: “[A] review of Congressional rules shows members of Congress are free to refuse their pay or pay increases, and some do so.”

In arts: Monday night was the Ivey awards, Minnesota theater’s opportunity to celebrate itself. MPR’s  Marianne Combs publishes a list of the winners, excluding the peculiar “Ivey Ad Award,” presented by the Risdall Marketing Group to the Penumbra Theater for a brochure that it describes as “witty.” As the Risdall Marketing Group has the Iveys as a client, and the presentation of the award included an introduction to Risdall and comments on how very important advertising is to theater, that particular award had the feel of being an advertisement itself. Such is the bargain you make with corporate sponsors — they give you money and support, and they get to slap their names on things and promote themselves. But it’s no real surprise Combs didn’t bother to mention this award.

The Associated Press has a very brief note about a disturbing incident in a Rochester skate park Monday afternoon, in which a 16-year-old fired a gun repeatedly into a tree and then turned the gun on himself. There isn’t much more to this story yet, although Jeff Hansel, writing for the Rochester Post-Bulletin, went to the park and talked with some of the witnesses, one of whom reported that the shooter seemed as though he was considering opening fire on the skaters and then had a last minute change-of-heart.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/21/2010 - 10:47 am.

    Let’s be clear. The idea of de-funding the University of Minnesota is to make it more dependent on corporate and big-money donors to keep itself going. The same thing has been true with National Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

    The changes in those media sources over the past few decades has been clear. They now go out of their way not to offend their corporate sponsors (in the case of MPR and NPR) and not to offend the tender sensitivities of scumagogues of the far right (in the case of all three), who are constantly looking for bogus issues with which they can keep the anger of their devotes on a high enough boil that they never notice who it is that’s stripping them of their assets.

    So, in many ways, the conservative agenda of seeking to ensure that scholarly, factual, research-based independent voices that once troubled them and sought to educate the public to what’s really going on are rendered impotent if not killed outright, has largely been accomplished.

    Unless we are willing to increase funding for what were once truth-telling organizations we will only ensure that we descend further into darkness as the chaos of misinformation being distributed by media organizations owned and controlled for the rich on their own behalf; all the garbage that passes for current “news,” these days – wherein the weasel calls the tune and all other “news” sources eventually take up the same dance – drowns out the truth that could save us and our society from the sad, dark, diminished future the profit mongers would have us build.

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 09/21/2010 - 11:33 am.

    Very good analysis on the film flip flop fiasco at the U.

    Much of the blame should be laid at the feet of the U President Robert Bruininks. This is not the first time that he has muffed the chance to do and say the right thing.

    And it should not be necessary for him to consult with PR folks to make decisions. The current mode of operation seems to be to push Mr. Wolter – governor Pawlenty’s former flak catcher – out in front of Morrill Hall to be the U spokesperson. If this approach should happen to blow up – as it has here – further steps can then be taken without having directly involved the president.

    Unfortunately this approach gives both the appearance and establishes the actual fact of weak leadership at the U. It gives the appearance of doing the right thing before putting a finger up in the wind to attempt to decide what answer will spin best.

    The President talks a good game:

    “I think we need to put ourselves in the position of acting according to the highest ethical principles. I believe our people do that now and I believe our people will be doing that in the future as well.” President Bruininks (Daily: 6-18-08)


    “Everything we do at the University of Minnesota is out in the open…” (President Bruninks)

    He’s got about six more months to demonstrate that these words mean something.

    And Max’s point about this being a terrible time to put the U in a bad light is well taken. Emmer will be a disaster for the U, Horner – if you read the fine print as Max has – will be no better than Pawlenty.

    I sincerely hope that the next president of the U will lead us back to priorities as a land grant institution. The administrations current ambitious aspirations to be a top three public in the world, is is both embarrassing and arrogant.

    And it would be best if the next president came from outside so that the current disaster is not repeated.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/21/2010 - 11:50 am.

    The film is about a scientific issue. The science in it has been reviewed, and found to be accurate.

    “Balance” should not enter into it. “Balance” is about opposing opinions, not facts.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/21/2010 - 01:50 pm.

    In defense of the moderator, and with all due sympathy for Dayton, who we are assured is once again in complete control of his faculties; perhaps his “quiet hand cues” were being mistaken for tremors, which the moderator did not want to draw attention to.

    As a helpful suggestion to team Dayton, I’d rule out energetic head nods as a cue, as well.

  5. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 09/21/2010 - 06:43 pm.

    I find the comments Mr. Swift made about Mark Dayton insulting.
    It seems the only thing Republicans have in their coffers is to attack and fabricate.
    Dayton seems to be the only candidate with a plan that shows he cares for the middle income and poor.
    Tom Emmer’s plan is for tax cuts to rich corporations, and cut funding to local governments., which would drive up property taxes even further.

    Tom Horner wants to cut taxes for big business too, and then stick it to the middle class by raising sales taxes on things like haircuts, clothing, farm equipment, school textbooks and other essentials.
    He is far from an Independent.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/22/2010 - 09:17 am.

    With all due respect, Jean, both of the budget plans Dayton has proposed fail to adress the problem.

    Un-biased, third party vetting has proved, twice, that Mark Dayton is not equipped to manage the state competently.

    Class warfare may make Dayton’s far left base feel good, but it only serves to harm the vast majority of the people of Minnesota.

  7. Submitted by Paul Scott on 09/22/2010 - 09:50 am.

    I don’t understand why the moderator for this page chooses to print the “comments” of Thomas Swift mocking Mark Dayton for his past health problems.

    It’s all sport isn’t it, Swift.

  8. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 09/22/2010 - 05:19 pm.

    According to Mr. Swifty:
    “Class warfare may make Dayton’s far left base feel good, but it only serves to harm the vast majority of the people of Minnesota.”

    I think Tim Pawlenty’s demolition of the Education system and the Cities in this State
    are comparable to what George Bush has done to this country.
    I will take my chances with Mark Dayton
    and if it means I pay a little more in taxes so be it…
    I enjoy police and fire protection.

  9. Submitted by donald maxwell on 09/26/2010 - 09:26 am.

    As long as Swifty has brought up “class warfare”, let’s acknowledge that we are in a state of class warfare, and let’s be very clear about where that war started. It started under Reagan and continued unabated under both Bushes and Clinton, and shows few signs of abating under Obama. You cannot look at the numbers for distribution of wealth and income and make a believable claim that the class warfare is coming from the bottom.

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