After incessantly covering the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the television media has largely overlooked the failure of a Massachusetts solar company championed by then-Governor Mitt Romney. The major cable and broadcast networks have failed to point out Romney's flip-flop on government clean energy investments, which he supported in Massachusetts and which enjoyed bipartisan support before the GOP turned Solyndra into a political punch line.
Mitt Romney has made Solyndra a central part of his campaign message, calling it a symbol of "crony capitalism" even though an extensive investigation has turned up "no evidence of wrongdoing." Earlier this month, Romney made a campaign stop at Solyndra's headquarters to lambaste the Obama administration's investments in clean energy. Many news outlets covered the event without mentioning that Romney made similar investments in renewable energy companies as Governor of Massachusetts.
Shortly after taking office in January 2003, Romney held a press conference at Konarka Technologies to award the company a $1.5 million loan as part of a new Green Energy Fund. Romney predicted the state-backed venture capital fund would "become a major economic springboard for the Commonwealth by focusing on job creation in the renewable energy sector." Since then, three of the twelve companies supported by the Green Energy Fund have gone bankrupt or been sold at a loss.
Konarka Technologies declared bankruptcy on June 1 -- the day after Romney's press conference at Solyndra. Since then, the major cable (CNN, MSNBC, Fox) and broadcast (ABC, CBS, NBC) networks have discussed Konarka only four times, for a total of about 15 minutes.* By contrast, the same networks spent over ten hours covering Solyndra in the weeks following its bankruptcy announcement.
Konarka's failure does not detract from the overall success of Massachusetts' green energy investments, most of which "continue to thrive" according to William Osborn, a general partner at the Green Energy Fund. Osborn told the Associated Press that the program anticipated some failures given the inherent risk associated with these investments:
Osborn said the loss of three companies out of a dozen isn't unusual in the venture capital world, which inherently involves some risk. He defended the decision to invest in Konarka, saying that in 2003 it was impossible to foresee the scale of investment that China would place on solar manufacturing -- the same pressure that officials at Solyndra cited as a key reason for its failure.
Similarly, Congress set aside ample funds to cover any losses from the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program, anticipating that not all investments would be successful -- a point that was largely overlooked by mainstream news outlets. And despite the media's attempt to paint this program as a failure, only 2 out of 26 loan guarantee recipients have filed for bankruptcy, and the majority of the loans are low-risk. As Grist noted, the loan program's failure rate is far lower than that of private venture capital investments in clean energy.
Experts agree that the government has an important role to play in fostering clean energy innovation in the U.S. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, government support is essential to help the clean energy industry overcome "fundamental, structural markets short comings" that "cannot be resolved by the private sector acting on its own." The Brookings Institution's Mark Muro agrees that "smart, market-wise and technology savvy government interventions will be necessary for some time if we want to participate in these economies."
As Governor, Romney was willing to take risks to promote clean energy in Massachusetts, even though it was clear that not every project would succeed. But now that Solyndra has become a GOP campaign target, Romney is attempting to draw contrast with President Obama by running away from his own clean energy record, and the TV media is missing the story.
In recent weeks, media outlets have hosted or quoted Romney's campaign surrogates denying that Romney ever supported government investments in clean energy companies. Romney spokesman Ryan Williams told the Associated Press, "Gov. Romney has never believed that the government should play venture capitalist." Campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom echoed this talking point on ABC's This Week: "The governor made it clear that his philosophy was that government should not be in the business of venture investing." And on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, GOP strategist Alex Castellanos claimed that Gov. Romney "didn't believe in" government investment funds, and insisted that "he said so at the time."
But according to Osborn, it is "disingenuous for Romney to say he opposes government investment in targeted companies since Massachusetts engaged in a similar practice when he was governor."
The Romney campaign counters that Konarka's loan was approved before he took office, and that the Green Energy Fund merely redirected assets from the long-established Massachusetts Renewable Trust. But as a Washington Post fact-check pointed out, Romney "could have put the brakes on all that. He boasted about it instead." Rob Pratt, who directed the program under Romney, told Bloomberg that clean energy spending actually "picked up" during Romney's administration.
The Post gave Romney three Pinocchios, which signifies "obvious contradictions," for trying to "have it both ways -- applauding and embracing clean-energy investments when it suits him and then disavowing those positions once they become a political liability."
Romney's election-year attacks on Solyndra run counter to his record as Governor, and the television media are letting it slide. In doing so, the media are enabling the GOP to mislead the public about the importance of clean energy investments.
*Based on searches of Nexis and an internal television database for "Solyndra" and "Konarka" between June 1 - 13.