"A Closer Look at Washington Post’s Solyndra Reporting"
by Jocelyn Fong, cross-posted from Media Matters
On the day after Thanksgiving, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton called on readers to “give thanks” for Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Joe Stephens, who have been “dogging the trail of Solyndra.” Pexton said their reporting on Solyndra showed that the Post produces journalism that is “hard-hitting regardless of who is in power.”
Leonnig and Stephens have certainly provided the play-by-play of the political battle over Solyndra’s failure. As Pexton notes, much of their reporting relied on the Republican-led investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with each strategically-timed document release and hearing garnering a Post article or two.
Pexton didn’t analyze the Post’s coverage in detail or with a critical eye, so here are some of my own observations:
- The Post has published 43 articles related to Solyndra since August 31, not including opinion pieces (according to a Nexis search; full list below). For comparison, the paper published 15 articles related to the Keystone XL pipeline in the same period. Thirty-four of the 43 articles are bylined by Leonnig, Stephens or both. Energy reporter Steven Mufson has a byline on 8 of the articles, but is not mentioned in Pexton’s piece.
- Twenty-six of the Post articles mentioned that Obama fundraiser George Kaiser is tied to investment funds that owned a large percentage of Solyndra. Only one article noted that before Obama took office and before his stimulus law existed, the Bush administration chose Solyndra “as one of 16 finalists” for a loan guarantee. That article was written by Mufson, with Leonning listed as a second author. It did not provide the number of applications (143) from which Bush’s DOE chose finalists. Another 3 articles mentioned in passing that the Solyndra loan process began during the Bush administration, and a Solyndra timeline published by the Post entirely omitted the Bush administration’s role in advancing the loan guarantee. Only one article noted that Madrone Capital, a firm associated with Wal-Mart Chairman Rob Walton, was another major investor in Solyndra.
- One of the 43 articles noted that default rate for the program is much less than what the government budgeted for losses. Bloomberg reported that the government “planned for defaults of as much as 12.85 percent” for the loan guarantee program, and that as of now, the default rate “is less than 3.6 percent.” Only one of the 43 Post articles mentioned the budgeted failure rate. Four articles mentioned that funds were set aside to cover losses from the program — 3 of those articles were written by Mufson and the other was in a quote from a DOE spokesman.
- Three of the 43 articles have been updated with corrections  — the most significant being, in my view, the false suggestion in a Leonnig/Stephens story that a federal loan given to Fisker Automotive was part of Obama’s stimulus package, when in fact, the funds were provided by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and later offered to Fisker by the Obama administration. This is an error that we’ve seen elsewhere, perhaps a symptom of political journalists hurriedly turning their attention to the DOE’s loan programs.
- A Post article included a misleading figure that was widely repeated by conservative media outlets. The September 14 article by Leonnig and Mufson stated that if DOE’s target of 60,000 jobs “is reached, it would work out to about $640,000 in loan guarantees for every job created or saved.” As several commentators pointed out, this figure isn’t useful since every company would have to default on the loans for the program to cost $640,000 per job.
- A Post article quoted an email out of context. In a September 13 article, Stephens and Leonnig said an August 2009 email exchange provided to the Post by House Republicans revealed that “a credit-rating agency predicted that the project would run out of cash in September 2011,” which raises “questions about whether the administration should have foreseen financial trouble.” But the Department of Energy later said the email was quoted out of context since the model also “shows the project having millions of dollars in cash the next month [after September 2011], and multiples of that by the end of January of 2012.” Committee Democrats also provided further contest from additional emails.
- None of the Post articles mentioned the market failures hampering wide-scale deployment of clean energy projects. As Bloomberg New Energy Finance stated in a 2010 report, a “Commercialization Valley of Death” stems from “fundamental, structural markets shortcomings” that “cannot be resolved by the private sector acting on its own” because “no existing class of financing institutions is effectively positioned” to support large-scale projects deploying new technologies. One article by Mufson and Leonnig did indicate, however, that the absence of a broader policy framework for energy should be part of the story:
Economists note that the government might never have gotten involved in loan guarantees if Congress had been willing to tax fossil fuels, introduce feed-in tariffs (a subsidized price) for renewable energy or approve a cap-and-trade policy that would penalize fossil fuels.
Feed-in tariffs have made Spain, Italy and Germany the world’s largest markets for solar power. And they don’t anoint winners and losers.
In the absence of those incentives, many investors still believe in the loan-guarantee program.
- Three of the articles mentioned climate change or global warming , with the context of each being a variation of: ‘Steven Chu is concerned about climate change.’ None of the articles mentioned air pollution.
- Attention given to Solyndra dwarfed coverage of other notable stories. As we noted, the Post’s Solyndra coverage between August 31 (the day Solyndra filed for bankruptcy) and September 23, was far greater than its coverage of 1) an obvious case of government corruption exposed in 2008 at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), and 2) a report exposing much greater loss of taxpayer dollars through military contracting waste and fraud. As of September 23, the Post had run 16 items (news and opinion) on Solyndra, compared to 3 items on the MMS scandal in the month after the story broke and 3 on the loss of money through war contracting waste and fraud between August 28 and September 23.
Overall, Leonnig and Stephens covered Solyndra as a political event, rather than a story about energy policy. As Pexton noted, their coverage dates back to a June 26 article revealing “how often Obama was visiting clean-technology companies and that some of these companies had political ties to him.” The story quoted disgruntled competitors of companies visited by Obama, as well as a representative from the American Petroleum Institute.
Even then, the Post was insinuating that some sort of corruption was at hand. But after 43 articles, they have yet to turn up evidence that the Solyndra loan guarantee was anything other than a well-intentioned investment gone bad.
- “Obama’s focus on visiting clean-tech companies raises questions,” 6/25/11
- “Solyndra solar company fails after getting controversial federal loan guarantees,” 8/31/11
- “House Republicans step up Solyndra investigation,” 9/1/11
- “Top Obama donor George Kaiser says he didn’t play politics to win government loan,” 9/2/11
- “FBI searches offices of Solyndra; lawmakers say they were misled about firm’s finances,” 9/8/11
- “A history of Solyndra,” 9/13/11
- “Solyndra loan: White House pressed on review of solar company now under investigation,” 9/13/11
- “Lawmakers question loan to solar company,” 9/14/11
- “Obama green-tech program that backed Solyndra struggles to create jobs,” 9/14/11
- “Obama administration e-mails: Giving more taxpayer money to Solyndra was risky,” 9/15/11
- “During Solyndra probe, Energy Dept. has to move billions in loans,” 9/16/11
- “House judiciary chair: Justice should probe Solyndra bankruptcy,” 9/19/11
- “Solyndra executives will invoke the Fifth at House hearing,” 9/20/11
- “Solyndra employees: Company suffered from mismanagement, heavy spending,” 9/21/11
- “Solyndra executives take the Fifth before U.S. House subcommittee,” 9/23/11
- “Some clean-energy firms found U.S. loan-guarantee program a bad bet,” 9/26/11
- “Investment in failed solar firm Solyndra raises questions about nonprofit’s purpose,” 9/27/11
- “Solyndra violated loan terms in 2010 but got more federal money, DOE confirms,” 9/28/11
- “Chu takes responsibility for a loan deal that put more taxpayer money at risk in Solyndra,” 9/29/11
- “Energy Secretary Chu felt pressure to speed up loans to firms like Solyndra,” 9/30/11
- “Solar projects get funding as deadline approaches,” 9/30/11
- “Obama was advised against visiting Solyndra after financial warnings,” 10/3/11
- “Investors, federal officials: Energy Department was careless with taxpayer money,” 10/4/11
- “Solyndra: E-mails show Energy Department was moving toward second loan for Solyndra,” 10/5/11
- “Amid Solyndra controversy, head of federal loan program resigns,” 10/6/11
- “Solyndra loan deal: Warning about legality came from within Obama administration,” 10/7/11
- “Government adviser defends Solyndra despite ethics agreement,” 10/8/11
- “Solyndra investor asked for White House publicity as firm sought federal funds,” 10/13/11
- “Emails show more officials were concerned about Solyndra loan,” 10/14/11
- “Rick Perry, Ron Paul have mixed record on energy subsidies,” 10/19/11,
- “Fisker, electric carmaker backed by $529 million U.S. loan, balks at Solyndra comparison,” 10/21/11
- “Energy Secretary Steven Chu, renowned physicist, at center of Solyndra policy storm,” 10/27/11
- “White House orders review of Energy Department loans amid Solyndra fallout,” 10/28/11
- “Another Obama fundraiser is investor in car company that won federal loan,” 10/28/11
- “Beacon Power declares bankruptcy; second loan guarantee recipient to falter,” 11/1/11
- “Energy Department couldn’t manage stimulus money, watchdog says,” 11/2/11
- “White House faces subpoena in Solyndra probe,” 11/4/11
- “Solyndra e-mails show Obama fundraiser discussed lobbying White House,” 11/9/11
- “Energy Department failed to sound alarm as Solyndra solar company sank,” 11/11/11
- “Before Solyndra, a long history of failed government energy projects,” 11/11/11
- “Solyndra: Energy Dept. pushed firm to keep layoffs quiet until after midterms,” 11/15/11
- “Fred Upton, GOP critic of Solyndra loan, sought funds for Mich. solar firm,” 11/16/11
- “Solyndra tried to influence Energy Department, e-mails show,” 11/16/11
- “Chu defends Solyndra loan guarantee,” 11/17/11
Jocelyn Fong is a researcher with Media Matters for America. This article was originally posted at Media Matters.