Is ‘No News’ News? Solyndra.

Tim Cavanaugh over at Reason has a critique of the media coverage of Steven Chu’s statement (or lack thereof) on the Solyndra bankruptcy. He’s miffed that the prestigious Washington Post ran a story headlined “Chu takes responsibility for a loan deal that put more taxpayer money at risk in Solyndra” when in reality, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu did no such thing – at least not specifically, in person or recently

And it turns out the Post story (which has a double byline) was just a piggyback on the Politico story. They’re both working off a comment from Chu spokesman Damien LaVera – a none-too shocking confirmation that the secretary of energy approves commitments, loan guarantees and restructurings performed by the Department of Energy.

Reading through the Politico story, “On Solyndra, the buck stops with Chu,” it’s clear the reporter was drawing upon the past statements Chu has made about Solyndra as well as an e-mail from LaVera about the decision making process. The most damning statement that is being lifted from Politico and shows up in all the blogs and articles on this topic? A restructuring in March 2010 gave Solyndra “the best possible chance to succeed in a very competitive marketplace and put the company in a better position to repay the loan.” That’s from LaVera’s e-mail to Politico. The rest of the quotes attributed to Chu are pulled from two different interviews Chu had with the WSJ.


Cavanaugh’s not so much disgusted that the media is covering a non-statement by Chu. Indeed, he mentions the piece he wrote on Sept. 29 examining the Politico piece and noting Chu’s absence from the scene. What understandabl upsets him is the wrong-headed conflation of a spokesperson explaining the decision making process and Chu actually “taking the fall“:

Nothing about Chu’s responsibility for the Solyndra loan has changed in the last 48 hours – but you’d have a better understanding of that fact if you had not been looking at the news than if you had. So maybe it’s a good thing that most Americans are paying no attention to Solyndra coverage.

The fact that Chu hasn’t really said anything about the Solyndra bankruptcy is only part of the story – the fact that he may appear before the committee investigating the potentially shady approval of the Solyndra loan guarantee is much more interesting. Chu is a rarity in government – he’s a scientist in politics and, as all the TJ kids learned when he spoke at our school and made lots of fun physics jokes, a true nerd.

The other point that I think bothers Cavanaugh and sort of strikes me as off is the way all of these stories treat statements by Chu’s spokesman about process as admission of guilt from Chu himself. Now, spokespeople are paid to be the public face of the organization or individual they represent in order to free up the people who are actually in charge to do work. But when they’re answering e-mail question about a topic, is it ethical to treat it like a quote in a press release while paying the bare minimum of attention to the actual origin of the information? Politico thrives on covering, in excruciating detail the minutiae of Washington. But should they have framed the story in a way that made it seem Chu had admitted to some sort of guilt in the Solyndra loan approval process when the reality was that… Politico had just finally gotten the full story on the approval process? Deceptive headlines are par for the course, obviously. Reading the article clarifies it immensely. But the Washington Post headline is even more deceptive than Politico’s headline – at least Politico is just stating the obvious while the WaPo stretches the truth more than I’m comfortable with. Something to think about.

In related Solyndra-type news, it’s interesting to go to the archived news at the Department of Energy‘s site right now and see the long list of large amounts of money being given to various solar projects in the past few days. That’s because the loan program ended last week, but it simply gives those who think the government’s wasting money on subsidizing green energy tech firms that are unlikely to succeed in the current market. Walter Russell Mead posits that the government loan guarantees were based upon beliefs that have been disproven and points to the faltering of the entire green energy sector.

When the program to subsidize the green industry started, there was hope for a global carbon treaty and perhaps a cap and trade system. Fear of dependence on Middle Eastern oil made national security types more likely to support going green. Consumers might have been willing to accept slightly higher gas prices in exchange for protection against future shortages and price spikes. The idea of global carbon limits and a domestic cap and trade program died, ending the possibility of government-created demand for solar and green tech. The discoveries of untapped domestic energy supplies (North Dakota, Marcellus Shale), the potential of Canada’s tar sands and advances in technology to extract energy from the ground have all diminished the power of the foreign oil specter.  And continued unemployment and economic stagnation ensures no politician would commit career suicide and suggest Americans should pay more at the pump.


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