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 get 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 one 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.
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 as much as perspective and that's what asserting editorial influence looks like.
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. He has a perspective, too. He's with an environmental organization.
That's part of the problem. This isn't independent journalism. It's not a documentary. (Add) If content is changed by those outside the production process (/add), it's an infomercial and the debate is over which self-interest owns 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 or backed by its journalistic credibility. Any time the word "promote" appears in a mission statement for any editorial
project process -- it does in this one -- it disqualifies itself from that classification. (Update: I acknowledge that a documentary is not by definition journalism)
The process in this case is not how journalism works. It's how advertising works. Perhaps iit's too late for "Troubled Waters." By the time it airs on television -- if it ever airs on television -- it may have little integrity 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?
"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.
And if you want to talk about integrity - how about doing a column on how Bill Kling can be the head of MPR and the head of a For-Profit Corporation (APM) at the same time and yet there is no conflict-of-interest ?
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.
Of course all documentaries have a point of view, usually that have the journalists behind. A foundation isn't a journalist, a director of a museum isn't a journalist, a dean isn't a journalist, a legislature isn't a journalist.
So, really, the key to a purity of point of view is the journalist. But once a journalist cedes editorial control to non-hournalists, it no longer is journalism.
I may not like that; you may not like that, but if that is the way it is, then it's good that we know that documentaries as presented are not exclusively the work of the journalists behind it, but all of those people who had an interest in promoting a particular viewpoint.
It's not asking too much to have full disclosure of who those people are so we can turn it off.
As for Bill Kling, sure that's a legitimate question -- even if it's used to distract from the conversation. Those occasions when Kling exerts editorial control over a piece of journalism coming from the newsroom should be highlighted.
It would be good to know what occurrences those are and why the journalists didn't quit over it.
That's what a journalist does.
Now if you're saying that it would be OK for me to run stories through the approval of the non-editorial branch of MPR first, and that the sort of process wouldn't diminish the integrity of the product, then we really don't have anything else to discuss, do we?
In this case, the integrity of this documentary has been fatally compromised, because the editorial process is polluted.
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.
Maybe it's a lot; maybe it's some; maybe it's none at all. But that's what credibility is all about, being able to fully trust that it's none at all.
do you see a process at work here that guarantees that? I sure don't.
By the way, Gateway, I noticed your email address is a U of M address. Do you have a horse in this race?
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 Univeristy'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 doign 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,
//. It was the Univeristy'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.
For the purposes of the discussion, you have to leave the personalities out of it and talk about the process. It doesn't MATTER if part of the process had integrity. The fact that part of it does not -- as I indicated - pollutes the production.
The content of the film as presented to the people who control the editorial process is irrelevant at this point. It became irrelevant once control of the film left their hands.
Its content can no longer be trusted, as I indicated. That doesn't mean the producer is bad, it doesn't mean the reporter is bad, it doesn't even mean that the university is bad. It only means that the process is bad.
//educational documentary film
That's right. They're not the same thing. The problem is when it appears on television, the perception is that it IS journalism. "Harvest of Shame" was a documentary. "Troubled Waters," if you read the Bell's explanation is equal to an "exhibit." Is that an exhibit like the one at the Science Museum of Minnesota afew years ago which spotlighted the coal-belching High Bridge plant? The exhibit that was sponsored by Xcel (or Northern States Power), and detailed how clean coal burning is?
In that situation, the people who went to see science, got an infomercial. In the process you seem to embrace, what's the guarantee that that's NOT what's happening here?
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.
Just to clarify, I'm not sure what process you think I"m embracing, but I can tell you the one I do not support: I do not support the PR branch of the U, acting on behalf of corporate interests in censoring a film made for educational purposes. I do not support a process in which a film is labeled as having no integrity when we haven't had a chance to see the film.
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 informercial ; 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 want to see it yourself or calling for it to be seen is very telling.
Bob - for argument's sake, let's leave Bill Kling out of this (much as he's fun to put into an argument).
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.
Again, I'm not being stick-in-eye here. It's a point in your argument I'm stumbling over, and am open to alternative ways of seeing.
P.S. for the purposes of my comments, I consider "the film" to be a finished product which is now being censored, not a film that will be modified at the behest of this U-appointed review committee. I believe the filmmaker when she says, as she has, that the film is not still a work in progress.
Joanna: Censorship is generally considered the act of a government or ruling entity or individual. What i happening with this film is more "gatekeeping." An important distinction.
You can call it gatekeeping, Bob M. When the administrative authorities of a university act to prevent or control the dissemination of ideas or opinions that have been created in association with the University, they are violating the fundamental mission of the public university, the trust of the public, and (not least) the confidence of their faculty--those who teach and research with the supposed guarantee of academic freedom--that intellectual inquiry and publication will be free from precisely this kind of interference from monied interest groups.
As an undergraduate, I had a job with the University Extension at the University of California at Berkeley. I am not naive about agribusiness and university partnerships. But I prefer the crude term censorship in this instance because it is precisely an administration body (the bosses, if you will) that is acting to suppress the dissemination of the views and work of its employees and intellectual partners.
I really want to see the film. A news story, film, or book whose publication is preceded by hype should not be dismissed merely because of multifaceted hype.
Most of us watch documentaries with a critical eye. They all have a point of view. If we wait for everything in this world to be totally "objective" and "balanced" maybe there will be no humans left to care (she writes hyperbolically).
Documentary viewing is not enough of course. We have to follow up. It's not enough to just watch a film and be outraged.
I think it should be noted that this film was funded by McKnight, Mississippi River Fund and, most importantly, LCCMR. (There are not mysterious outside funders.) According to the appropriation language, "The series is designed to use storytelling and visual media to promote citizen understanding and action in protecting, restoring, and conserving Minnesota's water resources."
First the U said it was pulled for "scientific review." However, the film had already undergone extensive scientific review. Is the U discrediting its own review process out of fear of a backlash from the Ag Community? Who knows.
Then they said that it was to review for LCCMR standards. However, the LCCMR determines that, not the U. Then they said it was pulled because it "vilified agriculture."
These are three different reasons. And that is the issue that no one can seem to answer.
Barb Coffin, producer at the Bell Museum and Larkin McPhee, director, were not included in this story. WHY?
The reporter has NOT seen the film, yet seems confident in judging it... HOW?
I've seen the film. It is about the key factors contributing to the DEAD ZONE. it is NOT about solving world hunger. It presents FACTS. Period. Like them or not.
The U. scientists spent months vetting the film. I have trouble believing that Susan at the Bell did not see the film until the week it was to air. WHY is she pulling it now?
We need to know WHAT specifically the U is objecting to.
I think, though, you are confusing "journalism" with "education" and "science." This was not intended to be a journalistic endeavor looking at "all sides of the issue." This was intended to be a project that looked at promoting watershed understanding and conservation issues. (Notably, the biggest watershed polluter is Big Ag. This isn't new information or controversial.) What's more, it's not an informercial. It's an educational documentary we're talking about.
And while a documentary might be "journalistic," I thinking making arguments about journalism don't really ring as true here. Instead, it's about ACADEMIC freedom (the overall mission that drives a research institution like the U) and not journalistic freedom.
I only say this because I don't want us, as journalists, to loose sight of the real issue here that the U isn't answering: Why, exactly, was it pulled? (There are so many conflicting answers.) And why would a PR department at the U (one that has a conflict of interest) be responsible for making that determination?
//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
That's exactly right. The only way the film can be viewed properly is if it exits the flawed process that exists.
//Barb Coffin, producer at the Bell Museum and Larkin McPhee, director, were not included in this story. WHY? The reporter has NOT seen the film, yet seems confident in judging it... HOW?
This post is not a "story" and I am not a 'reporter.'
This post is about a process, a deeply flawed process. It's not saying the film as it currently exists is a bad film. It's saying because it lives in a polluted process, it becomes polluted.
Molly is correct, perhaps, that it's about ACADEMIC freedom. I also think it's part of artistic freedom.
You can't have freedom, and have your work subjected, let's face it, to the power of that which funds it.
The film is in danger of being victimized by the process it is in which threatens academic and artistic freedom. If it's inaccurate, then, sure, fix it. But the gentleman in Stephanie's story said it, "it's not inaccurate."
What's left to discuss. Case closed. Show it. If the Bell won't release it, then the producer should. If after changes, it's released, then I think it becomes a flawed product of a flawed process.
That's all I'm saying.
//I really want to see the film. A news story, film, or book whose publication is preceded by hype should not be dismissed merely because of multifaceted hype. Most of us watch documentaries with a critical eye.
I agree, Betty. Which is why the documentary should be left to the producer and researcher and scientists who initially reviewed it. On the other hand if it has to be modified or reshot or repackaged or rewritten to accomodate people who are outside the normal artistic process of telling a story, then it becomes contaminated.
The minute someone who objects to the film says it's not inaccurate, is the minute it should be shown. Any other thing that raises serious questions and I don't see how the end product doesn't suffer because of it.
It's all about perception.
// no documentary can ever be credible if a moneyed interest objects.
Change "objects" to "influences" and I'd say you're close to getting it right.
//The fact that it doesn't do that is a positive sign - not a negative one.
Sure. But it doesn't matter what it does now. It's been submitted to a process that prevents its distribution because it is what you say it is.
If it comes out next week and the U says "we didn't make any changes," then fine. but if it comes out and we find changes have been made in it, even though it was deemed accurate, then I don't see how it can be trusted.
The people watching it on a reputable source of information -- TPT -- have a right to expect that what they're watching is the result of a process with integrity.
I don't question the integrity of the film in its current condition -- or at least the condition it was in as of last week. I do question whether it will have any integrity once other interests begin to change it.
I would recommend that in the future, there be no power to kill a production that is deemed accurate, because it might offend a special interest.
And as I said before, how many other documentaries out there have been changed, and its message altered from what its producer originally intended, because someone had an image to protect and the key to the vault?
To an earlier point that someone else made, I'm pretty sure Ken Burns maintained editorial control throughout his production
//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.
I can't speak for any of those fine people except for one.
In the scenario you describe, one in which I have a story that is killed -- or watered down -- because it offends someone with a special interest in it, then I quit. (And I make sure the original story gets out to the public).
It doesn't matter that my original story was solid. But if I participated in the process described in the paragraph above, I've compromised my integrity. And once you know that, you shouldn't trust anything I write. At some point, I become part of that process and I'm selling you snake oil.
I'm not saying that the producer of the film is doing that, by any stretch. But she shouldn't be in the position she's in right now and if -- as Joanna indicates -- she angry about that,, it's probably because she thinks the integrity of her work is imperiled.
And she's right. It is. The longer it's exposed to that process, the more the work is imperiled.
Me? I'd be real close to shipping a copy off to a friend in the TV or Web business and make a note never to work within that framework again.
What would you do?
(Addendum: Can we assume that since this thing was pulled more than a week ago, and everyone seems to have seen it, and a decision has apparently been released on the part of at least one participant that it's not inaccurate, that it is at the stage where there is now a direct effort to change the content? That's the point at which I think I walk away.)
//You criticize the use of the word "promote" in TW's mission statement
The granting mission statement. Not the mission statement of the film.
Exactly the same thing.
BUT if the conflict between me and the special interest was playing out, I might be pissed at an outside analyst referring to my (so far unmolested, for the sake of argument) story as an "informercial."
It may be one, but until I see it, I'm giving the director the benefit of the doubt. It may become one, in the U's hands.
But I don't feel a tainted process renders the work automatically an infomercial, and that's the way I read what you wrote above.
Perhaps splitting hairs, but I don't want dirt shoveled on the unseen product just yet.
// BUT if the conflict between me and the special interest was playing out, I might be pissed at an outside analyst referring to my (so far unmolested, for the sake of argument) story as an "informercial."
Then I haven't made clear what part of the process I'm in when I quit. I quit as soon as someone subjects my story to the review of the interests who might be harmed by it.
There isn't going to be a conflict between me and the special interests because in the editorial process *I* insist in working, the special interest can go pound sand. They don't get a look at my script. They don't get approval rights. And I'm not going to wait until we find out if the special interests succeed in making changes. I'm going to prevent it from getting that far by refusing to give it to them (actually, I'm pretty sure my bosses would refuse to give it to them.)
The minute I participate in a process in which intimidation or influence or anything other than the normal editorial process THREATENS the integrity of the assembled work, then I believe the entire body of work becomes questionable.
And, once any part of the work becomes questionable, it all becomes fairly aromatic.
Again, I'm not judging the current work of the producer. I am saying that if part of the process gives content influence to those who have a self-interest, then the entire process must be questioned.
And we haven't even talked about TPT's role in all of this. Are they just the projectionist here and sell airtime to the Bell Museum to show this documentary? Or do they have a responsibility here to say, "Wait a minute! If this has passed the accepted production process, hand it over."?
Because if they're not doing that, aren't they just doing what late-night and early Sunday TV does?
TPT told me that when the film's sponsor (the U) pulled it, they couldn't run it. (They don't control the rights.)
I don't know about any foot-stomping, but it does seem they are taking the projectionist's view.
A theater can't demand that a certain film be screened there if the producers don't want that to happen.
It appears that the bad process is rearing it's head after the film was finished. There's a big difference between a tainted research/production process and the distribution.
Right now I trust the filmmaker and scientific reviewers have produced a film worth seeing. The film should be released as-is. I'm sure Big Ag can afford to fund their own documentary about world food supply challenges.
// Barb Coffin, producer at the Bell Museum and Larkin McPhee, director, were not included in this story. WHY?
(Bob: Answered earlier)
Chuck, I'm not saying anything you're not saying. As i said, the objector in Steph's story said it when he said "it's not inaccurate." Case closed.
I think the film needs to emerge from its current process, which I think is tainted, as I describe.
You used the correct word. "Trust." The viewer has to trust that this is the commited work of the producer and researchers. The longer it stays in this process of influencing and changing what they produced, the harder it is to trust the resulting body of work.
If it doesn't come out intact, then its content was influenced in the ways described earlier. Since we all seem to be agreeing that the process of doing that is polluted, how can we disagree that its results wouldn't be?
Does anyone still have a copy of the film that's not in the hands of the U right now/? Sneak it out of the building and show it.
What exhibit at the Science Museum are you referring to? This exhibit about clean coal and the high bridge plant you describe doesn't ring any bells.
Two thumbs up - renegade community screening!
Check out today's story in the Minnesota Daily:
Karen Himle talks !
Yikes! - this thing just went from bad to worse.
It is naive to expect a project to be uninfluenced by it's funding source. The biggest misstep I see in this case is that the influencing came late enough in the process that it is now public. The subsequent public attention has been mandled poorly from a PR standpoint.
The best course of action now is to show the film (if it is factually accurate), apologize in private to the offended sponsors, and make some quiet personnel/policy changes to placate these (and future) sponsors.
I think a good old fashioned "sit in" might get this film to the screen.
When the Midwest is producing corn for fuel, it is no longer thinking about feeding the starving world, but fuel hungry automobiles, so that argument no longer applies here in Minnesota. Time to focus our attention on water quality not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but also in Minnesota. We can all start with with enforcing the state law that requires that all streams and waterways have a vegetative buffer zone, both in rural and urban zones, which we know is largely not being enforced, and is therefore not being followed. That is the easiest first place for all of us to start.