STUDY: One Year Later, Media Still Providing One-Sided Solyndra Coverage
Research ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL, JILL FITZSIMMONS & MAX GREENBERG
A Media Matters analysis finds that Fox News has aided Republican efforts to make Solyndra the face of clean energy in 2012 by incessantly covering it a year after the company declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets have disproportionately hosted opponents of clean energy to discuss Solyndra, and uncritically repeated allegations that Solyndra's loan guarantee was politically motivated, even though a yearlong investigation has found no evidence to support the "crony capitalism" narrative.
Fox News Still Relentlessly Covering Solyndra
In 2012, Fox News Covered Solyndra More Than Other Major TV Outlets Combined. Since January, Fox News has discussed Solyndra 84 times in primetime, despite there being very little news to report. Fox's coverage amounted to more than three times that of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and MSNBC combined. From a study of substantial mentions of and segments on Solyndra for ABC, CBS, NBC and the primetime shows of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC:
TV Media Disproportionately Hosted Clean Energy Opponents
Opponents Of Clean Energy Investments Outnumbered Proponents In TV Appearances On Solyndra. Of those hosted or quoted by the major TV networks on Solyndra, 71 percent opposed clean energy investments like the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program, while only 25 percent supported such investments. CBS, NBC, Fox News, and CNN hosted more opponents than proponents, while ABC and MSNBC hosted an even number on both sides.
Media Failed To Mention That Congress Anticipated And Budgeted For Defaults. In the media's discussion of Solyndra, less than 1 percent of TV coverage and 4 percent of print coverage explained that Congress expected that not all projects would succeed. None of the major outlets explained that most loans went to low-risk generation projects. Congress budgeted $2.47 billion, or more than 15 percent of the total value of approved 1705 loan guarantees, to cover for defaults. To date, only three out of the 26 recipients of 1705 loan guarantees have filed for bankruptcy, with losses estimated at just over $600 million. All three of the defaults were higher risk loans. But a Bloomberg Government study found that "87 percent of the $16.1 billion in loan guarantees is backing 18 power generation projects, which have a low risk of default because they were required to have buyers for their power output." That study found that even if all of the higher risk (non-generation) projects defaulted on the full amount of their loan guarantees and "no assets were to be recovered, the DOE would still have $446 million remaining to cover additional project losses." [Media Matters, 12/6/11] [Media Matters, 6/29/12]
Media Advanced Baseless "Crony Capitalism" Allegations
Media Uncritically Repeated Charges Of "Crony Capitalism," Ignoring Facts That Run Counter To GOP Narrative. Thirty-nine percent of television coverage and 18 percent of print coverage repeated Republican claims that Solyndra is an example of "crony capitalism" and that politics played a role in the loan guarantee, without noting that there is no evidence to support this charge. The Washington Post uncritically mentioned cronyism charges in 45 percent of coverage -- more than any other print outlet. ABC repeated these charges in every one of its segments on Solyndra, and CBS and CNN did so in 50 percent of coverage. While the broadcast networks never disputed the allegations, 6 percent of cable coverage and 7.5 percent of newspaper coverage criticized those charges (critical coverage is not counted against outlets in the graph below).
While advancing these baseless allegations, media largely ignored facts that undermine this narrative. Mainstream outlets said in 25 percent of coverage that some Solyndra investors donated to President Obama, but they almost entirely ignored the fact that Republican donors like the Walton family also invested in Solyndra. Not a single media outlet mentioned that Solyndra attracted more than $1 billion in private capital and was seen by many as a promising, innovative company. And only 3 percent of TV coverage and less than one percent of print coverage mentioned that the loan process for Solyndra started under the Bush administration. [Media Matters, 9/19/11]
A Long Investigation Turned Up No Evidence Of Wrongdoing. Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green reported that an extensive investigation by House Republicans found no evidence of wrongdoing in the loan guarantee program. He also noted that Solyndra was seen by many business experts as promising:
A White House source passed along some information that gives a sense of just how much time, money, and effort has been spent pursuing this investigation: House Republicans have sent 32 congressional letters, compelled 187,000 pages of administration documents, 72,000 pages of documents from Solyndra investors, 9 committee staff briefings, 5 committee hearings, and a sworn committee interview with the Obama bundler who raised money from people involved in the company. Much (but not all) of the committee's $7 million budget has been devoted to funding this inquisition. And it's turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.
One reason the investigation persists is that it's a handy pretext for demanding documents, and who knows what could turn up? But Democrats have also done a pretty lousy job of defending against the idea that something nefarious was going on. The clearest evidence that Solyndra was a worthy recipient of a government loan is that it also attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from big-name private investors and top venture capital firms, including Richard Branson, KKR, and Argonaut Private Equity[.] In 2010, the Wall Street Journal named Solyndra the top venture-backed clean-tech company. MIT Technology Review named it one of the world's 50 most innovative companies. Goldman Sachs was the lead investment banker. So the notion that Solyndra was a boondoggle for Obama cronies is silly. [Bloomberg Businessweek, 2/17/12, emphasis added] [Media Matters, 9/19/11]
Oversight Committee Chairman: "Is There Political Influence And Connections [Involved In Solyndra]? Perhaps Not." Politico reported:
More than a year into a probe that's extended to the Energy Department loan guarantee portfolio, Republican investigators even acknowledge they've fallen short of substantiating their allegations that the administration helped political allies like Tulsa oilman George Kaiser secure hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies through a loan guarantee to Solyndra.
"Is there a criminal activity? Perhaps not," Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa told POLITICO after last Tuesday's showdown with Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "Is there a political influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda, an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely." [Politico, 3/27/12]
Republican Acknowledged That Continued Solyndra Investigations Are Politically Motivated. E&E News reported:
For all the talk over possible "smoking guns" that might show some wrongdoing on the part of the Obama administration on Solyndra or another Department of Energy loan, one House Republican acknowledged yesterday that multiple GOP probes on the subject are in some ways a play for votes on Election Day.
In an interview after as he left yet another hearing in which Energy Secretary Steven Chu testified about the controversial loan program for clean energy companies, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said that -- smoking gun or not -- Republicans are finding value in drawing attention to the more controversial aspects of the loan guarantee program.
"Our staff will continue to dig into it and see," Jordan said. "But what I hope happens is we stop doing these kind of things ... this whole cronyism approach to the marketplace.
"Ultimately, we'll stop it on Election Day, hopefully. And bringing attention to these things helps the voters and citizens of the country make the kind of decision that I hope helps them as they evaluate who they are going to vote for in November." [E&E News, 3/21/12, via Climate Progress, emphasis added]
Kaiser's Family Foundation Invested In Solyndra, As Did Some Republicans. Solyndra's largest investor was the George Kaiser Family Foundation, founded by Obama donor George Kaiser. But as a foundation spokesman told PolitiFact, Kaiser "could not withdraw money from the foundation for his private use ... That investment in Solyndra would not have benefitted Mr. Kaiser personally in any way." Solyndra's second largest investor was Madrone Captial Partners, which is linked to the Walton family, who are major Republican donors. The CEO of Solyndra was reportedly a registered Repbulican and one of Solyndra's lobbyists was Bill Weld, a "semi-prominent supporter of Mitt Romney," according to the Huffington Post. [Politifact, 11/2/11] [Huffington Post, 5/31/12] [Media Matters, 9/19/11]
Bush Admin. Advanced 16 Projects, Including Solyndra, Out Of 143 Submissions. The Department of Energy's Loan Guarantee Program was created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and expanded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Bush administration's Department of Energy selected Solyndra from 143 submissions to move forward in the process. During the final days of the Bush administration, the DOE's loan guarantee credit committee, consisting of career officials, said that although the Solyndra project "appears to have merit," the committee needed more information in several areas before it could recommend approval of a conditional commitment. The committee "remand[ed]" the loan "without prejudice" for "further development of information." Afterwards, officials at the Department of Energy under the Bush Administration developed a schedule for due diligence on the Solyndra project, envisioning completion in March 2009. And indeed, in March, the same credit committee composed of career civil servants recommended the Solyndra's application for approval. [Media Matters, 9/19/11]
Media Outlets Miss The Big Picture
Media Failed To Explain Shifting Market Conditions Impacting Solyndra. A Labor Department investigation found that foreign competition "contributed importantly" to Solyndra's failure, causing a large drop in the price of the silicon-based solar panels with which Solyndra was competing. But foreign competition was mentioned in just 12 percent of TV coverage and 13 percent of print coverage, and many of these reports cited competition to argue that the government shouldn't have invested in Solyndra in the first place. Other market factors were entirely ignored by TV outlets, and mentioned in just 13 percent of print coverage. [Bay Citizen, 11/21/11]
Media Overlooked Fossil Fuel Subsidies. While media outlets debated the merits of investing in clean energy, they rarely mentioned that the fossil fuel industry has long benefited from large, permanent subsidies that make it difficult for solar power to compete. According to a 2011 study from venture capital firm DBL Investors on inflation-adjusted energy subsidy spending, "federal commitment to [oil and gas] was five times greater than the federal commitment to renewables during the first 15 years of each subsidies' life." And a Congressional Budget Office issue brief on federal financial support for energy development noted that "Under current law, most of the tax preferences for energy efficiency and renewable energy will expire, but preferences for fossil fuels are permanent." But not a single TV outlet made this point, and only 6 percent of print coverage mentioned fossil fuel subsidies. The Wall Street Journal, which ran stories about Solyndra more often than other major publications, only mentioned existing fossil fuel subsidies once. In a January 30 editorial, the Journal argued that President Obama should implement "a Solyndra Rule, in which no commercial energy company should receive millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies," but did not mention fossil fuel subsidies. [DBL Investors, September 2011] [Congressional Budget Office, March 2012] [Wall Street Journal, 1/30/12]
Climate Change Largely Absent From Clean Energy Conversation. One of the main goals of investing in clean energy companies is to create a thriving clean energy sector that can mitigate the risks of manmade climate change. But not a single TV outlet mentioned climate change while covering Solyndra, and just over 5 percent of print coverage mentioned it. Two Wall Street Journal stories on Solyndra mentioned climate change -- tying the paper with the Associated Press for the lead in that category -- but both were opinion pieces by writers who questioned the underlying science. [Wall Street Journal, 1/25/12] [Wall Street Journal, 3/9/12]
We searched Nexis and Factiva databases for substantial mentions of Solyndra (more than one sentence) between January 1, 2012, and August 31, 2012. Our analysis includes six major print outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal), the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), and the primetime shows on CNN, MSNBC and Fox.
Drew Gardner created the graphics included in this report.