When Troubled Waters, a documentary on the Mississippi produced by the University of Minnesota, was in the final editing stage in April, it was sent to one person not on the reviewer list — Kristin Weeks Duncanson, a farmer who works in the lobbying industry.
Duncanon is vice-chair of the board of directors of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a lobbying firm, and a former director of the American Soybean Association, an organization that lobbies the federal government.
Al Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, sent Duncanson an unedited copy of the film and asked her to review it. Duncanson, vice-chairwoman of the Board of Directors of Agri-Growth, a Minnesota-based agriculture lobbying firm, responded with concerns that the film wasn’t fair toward conventional famers.
“The film points at the Farm Bill and government policy as the root to all evil when it comes to the problems with the river,” Duncanson wrote in an e-mail message. “The comments regarding the Farm Bill could be very dangerous for the University.”
Later in the same e-mail, Duncanson wrote, “Who is the audience? Will this piece have the University’s name on it? I am very concerned about the piece.”
Duncanson’s comments did not impact the final version of the film but were taken into consideration in a “crisis plan” formed by University members to handle negative reactions from the agriculture community.
The title of the reaction plan later was changed, striking the term “crisis,” but the concern remained.
“We have a diverse set of constituents, and we are anticipating that some of them will not be pleased,” Bell Museum Director Susan Weller wrote in an e-mail to CFANS and Bell Museum public relations officials.
Levine said in an interview that he only gave the film to Duncanson because he knew she’d previously been consulted on the film. Levine said that Duncanson was the only outside party with whom he shared the film.
“Nobody said I couldn’t share it with anybody,” Levine said. “I thought it wouldn’t be bad for a farmer to see the film.”
However, in an e-mail made public last week, Barbara Coffin, the film’s executive producer, wrote that Troubled Waters should not have been shown to an unauthorized party without a member of the production team present to answer questions.
Weller said Coffin’s presence at viewings would prevent a “hyper-reaction,” which she said occurred when Vice President for University Relations Karen Himle delayed the film’s October premiere Sept. 7.
An Aug. 11 meeting was organized by Bell Museum spokesman Martin Moen, who also gave Levine a copy of the film in April. University public relations officials used Duncanson’s review at the meeting, which, Moen said, “confirmed our need to plan for possible negative reaction to the film.”
“We did not change our proposed communication strategies as a result of Duncanson’s comments,” Moen said.
Following the meeting, the officials planned to call their contacts in the agriculture community to inform them of the film’s content. They discussed a preliminary viewing of the film with members of the farming and environmental communities, co-hosted by Duncanson, Coffin and Levine.
Neither of these steps, scheduled for early September, were followed because the film’s premiere on Twin Cities Public Television was delayed.
After the meeting, Coffin called Duncanson to follow up on her concerns. Coffin and Larkin McPhee, the film’s writer, director and producer, had previously interviewed Duncanson and her husband, who operate a family farm in Mapleton, Minn. The interview was not used in the film.
Because of her early involvement in the film’s background research, Duncanson said seeing the film did not constitute a conflict of interest.
“Remember, I wear many hats,” she said. “I don’t see it as a conflict at all.”
Besides her role as a farmer and her involvement in Agri-Growth, Duncanson is a past president of Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and a member of several agriculture interest groups.
Levine equated previewing the film to his experience reading academic papers before they appear in a journal to prepare for any negative outside reactions.
“If it’s not embargoed, people see it all the time,” he said. “We always have a plan around anything that could bring up some controversy because we have a college with a lot of different stakeholders.”
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