Reality Check: ABC, CBS and NBC Bury News of Taxpayer Money Squandered on Obama-Linked Solar Energy Company
A study by the Media Research Center finds that the three broadcast networks are providing virtually no coverage of the Solyndra scandal, a solar energy firm that went bankrupt after getting more than $500 million in taxpayer money from the Obama administration. This is not the approach the networks took after the collapse of Enron, an energy company with Republican ties. In just the first two months of 2002, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts cranked out 198 stories on the Enron debacle, compared to just eight so far on Solyndra, a 24-to-1 disparity. Details after the jump.
Friday night — in a classic and cynical news management strategy — the administration disgorged e-mails showing a top Obama fund-raiser and Energy Department official, Steven Spinner — who had supposedly recused himself from Solyndra’s loan application because his wife worked at a law firm representing the solar energy company — had badgered his colleagues to approve the deal.
One e-mail exchange published by The Politico demanded to know: “Any word on OMB? [the Office of Management and Budget] I have the O.V.P. [Office of the Vice President] and W.H. [White House] breathing down my neck on this....How hard is this? What is he waiting for?”
Even though these e-mails were sensational enough to make it onto the front-page of Saturday’s New York Times, ABC, CBS and NBC never found a moment over the long Columbus Day weekend to mention any of this, just as they skipped news earlier in the week that Jonathan Silver, who ran the Department of Energy loan program that handed more than $500 million in taxpayer money to Solyndra, had resigned. When two Solyndra executives took the Fifth Amendment before a congressional committee in late September, ABC and NBC skipped that news, too, while CBS offered a whopping 25 seconds of coverage.
A review of the ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news shows by the Media Research Center found just fifteen stories mentioning the Solyndra scandal since its August 31 bankruptcy filing — eight on the evening newscasts (four full reports plus another four brief anchor-read items) and seven on the morning news shows (five full reports and two brief items). The network total coverage over nearly six weeks: just 25 minutes, 30 seconds, or less than 0.2% of the available network news airtime.
That’s remarkably paltry compared to what one imagines the coverage would have been if a Republican administration had funneled that much government cash to a company dominated by political allies (the company’s biggest investor, George Kaiser, bundled more than $50,000 in contributions for the President’s 2008 campaign, and visited the White House four times before the loan from the Department of Energy was finalized).
While the networks are treating Solyndra as just a minor blip on Obama’s radar screen, the scandal exposes deep flaws in the President’s economic and environmental approaches. And, the media’s lackadaisical attitude is a vivid example of their ever-more partisan approach to covering Washington politics:
The Failure of Obama’s “Stimulus” Spending Spree: The taxpayer money for Solyndra came from Obama’s “stimulus,” and back in 2009 the media cheered the administration’s plan to massively increase government spending in order to jump start the economy. MRC’s analysis showed nearly six out of ten network news stories (58%) tilted in favor of the big government approach as Congress debated it at the time (January 20 through February 14, 2009). In the year after it passed, the networks grew even more skewed, with more than 70% of stories applauding the stimulus as good economic medicine.
The presumption that government spending would create the jobs it promised was too good to check, and network reporters passed along the administration’s claims of success. Typical was then-CBS anchor Katie Couric, who enthusiastically chirped on the March 6, 2009 Evening News: “We’ll show you the new jobs his stimulus plan is creating.”
Two years later, a review by the MRC’s Business & Media Institute found virtually no network stories (just 2% out of 589) reminding viewers how the original White House pitch for new spending included the idea that it would keep unemployment from rising higher than 8%. In fact, the unemployment rate has been above 8% for the past 32 months, since February 2009.
Statistics show that stimulus money was overwhelmingly directed toward projects in Democratic congressional districts, not Republican ones. Even for those who believe that government spending can boost economic growth, that’s a red flag suggesting money was handed out to pet causes and constituencies, not to those who could necessarily use it most wisely. Yet the networks have yet to seize on Solyndra’s Democratic ties to more broadly question how Obama’s stimulus dollars were actually spent.
Green Jobs Are an Even Bigger Failure: As for the “green jobs” that would result from showering cash on companies like Solyndra, the Washington Post crunched the numbers in September 2011 and found failure: Instead of creating 65,000 jobs, as promised, the $38 billion loan program which included Solyndra could only claim 3,545 jobs.
Yet, as the MRC documented, the network coverage of the “green jobs” concept has been even more lopsided than coverage of the stimulus overall. Skepticism has been virtually non-existent. “We have gotten the message. Green-collar jobs are the wave of the future,” co-host Diane Sawyer cheered ABC’s Good Morning America back on April 15, 2009. Out of 52 network stories that mentioned the administration’s “green jobs” program, only four (8%) bothered to include any critics at all.
Conservatives have criticized the entire Obama concept as antithetical to a free market. “When government takes $535 million and invests in a loser, it not only wastes taxpayer money but it also denies that capital to some other project in the private economy that might have succeeded. The Solyndra e-mails show how ill-equipped government is to predict the industries of the present, much less the future,” a Wall Street Journal editorial declared on Monday.
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Yet in the 15 stories since the company’s bankruptcy, not one has included the suggestion that Solyndra’s failure casts any doubt on the administration’s green jobs campaign. Instead, the networks have maintained the Obama administration’s line that the scandal is an isolated matter, an aberration that should not be seen as impugning the overall record.
Double-Standard Scorecard: Bush/Enron, 198; Obama/Solyndra, 8: Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011 after taking $500 million in direct government loans. In late 2001, the energy giant Enron went bankrupt, and it quickly emerged that the Bush administration had refused pleas from company executives to provide a taxpayer-funded bailout.
Yet the networks attempted to twist that story of corporate fraud into one of political malfeasance by stressing an imagined link between the Bush administration and the company’s corruption. “Enron’s connections to the Bush administration, wide and deep,” ABC anchor Peter Jennings intoned on January 10, 2002. Over on MSNBC that night, future NBC anchor Brian Williams hyped it as “the story some are already calling Bush’s Whitewater.”
In just the first two months of 2002, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts cranked out 198 stories on the Enron debacle, many about the potential entanglement of the Bush White House. Such feeding-frenzy coverage dwarfs the eight stories those broadcasts have devoted so far to Solyndra’s demise, a 24-to-1 disparity. Yet the Solyndra case involves the actual transfer of more than $500 million to a company whose largest investor, George Kaiser, was a major Obama campaign bundler (raising in between $50,000 and $100,000 for the President’s 2008 campaign).
And Obama’s Energy Department took the unusual step of restructuring the loan to Solyndra, so that private investors would be paid off before taxpayers in the event of a bankruptcy. According to e-mails released Friday, Treasury Department officials warned that such an arrangement might require a Justice Department ruling, but were ignored.
The few stories that have reached the air have been fairly tough. ABC’s Brian Ross, for example, painted the administration as deceitful in a September 14 World News report: “This year, even as Solyndra approached bankruptcy, the company and the White House kept it a secret, telling Congress and the workers everything was going great until the day it shut its doors.”
But the networks’ minimalist approach to this scandal seems designed to ensure that many Americans never even hear about Solyndra. A Pew Research Center survey in late September (after most of the stories aired) found 43% of respondents had never even heard of the scandal.
The media touted their adversarial, watchdog approach during the Bush years. If the Solyndra case is any indication, those once-aggressive reporters are now contented lapdogs snoozing at Obama’s feet.