Energy Reporters Criticize 60 Minutes' “Poor Piece of Journalism”

60 Minutes segment claiming that federal government efforts to encourage clean tech -- the production and use of alternative energy sources and more efficient technology -- have failed drew some harsh disagreement among reporters covering the energy beat who say the negative report ignored many successes and focused too narrowly on a few unsuccessful companies.

Correspondent Lesley Stahl concluded in the January 5 piece that while stimulus spending including the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program was invested in the industry, “instead of breakthroughs, the [clean tech] sector suffered a string of expensive tax-funded flops.” 

Stahl's segment has drawn criticism from observers who have noted that 60 Minutes focused on Solyndra and a handful of other failed companies whose loans made up a tiny fraction of federal loans and ignored the clean tech breakthroughs and the explosive growth in the sector that have occurred.

The report was only the latest in a series of 60 Minutes reports that have been subject to stinging critiques in recent months. The program has been excoriated by media observers and accused of “check[ing] its journalistic skepticism at the door” by The New York Times.

Journalists who cover the same energy industries took issue with the clean tech report in interviews with Media Matters, noting that it did not take into account the long-term development needs of clean energy and the many ongoing successes.

“I thought it was a pretty poor piece of journalism, frankly,” said David Baker, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter covering clean tech and energy. "There are areas of this field that are hurting, but there are others that are doing very, very well."

Baker added that 60 Minutes' error begins with its conception of the story: “The problem really begins when you just talk about clean tech as one thing - it is a bunch of things and a lot of it is energy generation and energy use. In a report like this where you look at clean tech in general, you have difficulty because it is not the same for each sector.”

“The other biggest problem with the CBS story is it looked at some of the flops and really seemed to turn a blind eye to the success,” he continued. “That is one of the most fundamental mistakes Lesley Stahl and her producers make.”

Baker pointed to several west coast examples of successes, including the recently created California Solar Ranch, the largest solar plant in the nation that went online late last year.

“We are going to have a huge amount of power going on the grid from solar,” Baker explained. “Some of those projects were funded in part through the Department of Energy loan program, the same one that funded Solyndra.”

Ken Paulman, editor of Midwest Energy News, offered a similar critique.

“It seems like they're pretty narrowly focused on a couple of high-profile failure stories that have been through the media ringer a couple of years ago,” Paulman said about 60 Minutes. “That is kind of the puzzling thing about the story. We have already covered Solyndra, we already know about that."

Several reporters pointed to the question that Lesley Stahl asked in the piece: “Is clean tech dead?” Stahl included the response of one interview subject who said that “parts of it were” “on life support,” while reportedly leaving out of the story another subject's response that it was not. Paulman and others who spoke to Media Matters stressed that Stahl's question pushes an inaccurate notion.

“I would say that is definitely not the case here in the Midwest,” Paulman stated. “We are definitely seeing a lot of growth in solar. Mid-American Energy announced recently they are spending something like a billion dollars on new wind farms in Iowa."

As for the future, Paulman added, “I don't see the demand for new technology ever going away, it is only going to increase. If they are trying to establish a narrative that clean technology is a failure, I would say that is inaccurate.”

For Kevin Hall, a McClatchy business reporter and president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the death knell is also unwarranted for clean tech.

“I don't think it's dead at all,” Hall declared in a phone interview. “I think the technology is there. It is correct to say that certain things are profitable at certain prices. It's not dead, but in a free market the lower priced oil is a factor.”

Hall also took issue with 60 Minutes and others pointing to government support for clean energy as a negative, stating it ignores the fact that the oil industry has gotten plenty of government subsidies.

“I do think it needs government support,” Hall said about clean energy, but added, “it is misleading to say the oil industry doesn't get government support - tax incentives and royalties and a number of things that are done for that. It is misleading to say that oil stands on its own. Oil got where it is because it had been a government policy to promote discovery of and preserves of oil because oil was a strategic need.”

Bryan Walsh, a senior editor at Time who covers energy issues, said the clean tech death assertion is “just not true.”

“It is not dead by any means,” Walsh said. “That is not the case. Just because you didn't fulfill the wildest dreams of Silicon Valley venture capitalists doesn't mean it's dead.”

Walsh said of many news reports: “A lot of the focus has been on venture capital and that has certainly cratered, but what you have had is a shake out and the ideas that are good that have shown themselves to be effective in the post-crisis era are continuing and going on. You have seen clean tech change, more about smart companies and smart ideas than manufacturing. We still write about it and still look for a lot of companies that are innovative, it is going to be a growing sector going forward I think.”

Walsh acknowledged that the clean energy industry has been “hit hard” by some factors, such as new natural gas and shale oil discoveries. But, he added, “at the same time, there are some definite success stories. Look at a company like Solar City, which has done very well in taking advantage of the drop in prices of solar panels and getting that to as many customers as possible."

He also stressed that “renewable energy is still on the increase. You can see this new sort of clean tech. Instead of manufacturing things, you look at ways to help people become more efficient. Clean tech is doing well. It is fighting a lot of head winds, but those who are innovative are going to do well.”

David Shaffer, who covers energy at The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, pointed to a new “massive” $250 million solar plant in his state that will provide electricity for the local utility, and which beat out a natural gas competitor for the rights.

“Wind has [also] been the big investment that utilities out here have made, it is a good spot for wind,” he added. “If you look at nuclear costs around the country, it is clear the cost has gotten too high, it is just expensive.”

Ethan Zindler, a policy analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance who tracks energy investment data for the news and information outlet, said 60 Minutes ignores the “most important” piece of the clean energy story.

“The most important story is that clean energy technologies have never been more competitive as they compete with fossil fuels,” Zindler said. “We are already seeing situations where wind projects in the United States are able to win power contracts even when directly competing against fossil sources of generation. The most developed technologies for solar panels and wind turbines, the costs have come down tremendously in the last several years.”

He also criticized the focus on venture capital investment and loss, noting that of the $281 billion invested in clean energy during 2012, just $8.4 billion was invested in new venture capital.

“There's a lot of venture investment that's gone in, there certainly has been bankruptcies,” he said. “But there has been a lot of success stories.”