Out Of Proportion? The Solyndra Media Storm By The Numbers

The coverage surrounding Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer that declared bankruptcy after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee, has been sloppy on the part of both mainstream and conservative media outlets. It has also been remarkably abundant.

Between August 31, when Solyndra suspended operations, and September 23, six major print outlets discussed the story in 89 items (news and opinion). Broadcast and cable TV networks discussed Solyndra more than 190 times, totaling over 10 hours of coverage -- 8 hours of which occurred on the Fox News Channel.

To put the volume of Solyndra coverage into context, we examined how much attention major print and TV news outlets gave to 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. The following charts capture our results:

print media coverage Solyndra

The data for ABC, CBS and NBC are shown by minutes of airtime.

broadcast news coverage Solyndra

The data for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC are shown by hours of airtime.

cable news coverage Solyndra

On September 10, 2008, the inspector general of the Interior Department delivered three reports documenting wide scale ethics abuses at the Minerals Management Service, the agency tasked with oversight of offshore drilling. The reports found that MMS employees had accepted valuable gifts from oil representatives and had rigged the contracting process to favor friends. The reports also described a “culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” within the MMS and uncovered illegal behavior by employees “wholly lacking in acceptance of or adherence to government ethical standards.”

In the month after the story broke, it was discussed in 20 items in the major print outlets, and TV outlets spent a total of 28 minutes covering the investigation. This amounts to less than one fourth of Solyndra's print coverage, and less than one fifth the television coverage, when excluding Fox News, which significantly skews the average.

The numbers are equally striking when comparing the onslaught of coverage surrounding the Solyndra controversy to coverage of the revelation that $31-60 billion has been lost to waste and fraud through contracts related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That loss represents 15 to 30 percent of total U.S. contract spending. The congressionally-mandated report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting concluded that the government is “still unable to provide effective management and oversight of contract spending that will have exceeded $206 billion by the end of September.”

The report, which was released the same day Solyndra shut down operations, prompted 11 news articles and less than an hour of television coverage between August 28 and September 23, despite costing the taxpayers as least 56 times more than Solyndra, assuming the government recovers nothing from the bankruptcy proceedings. (Keep in mind that Congress set aside $2.4 billion for the cost of defaults across the Department of Energy's loan guarantee portfolio and Solyndra is the only project to fail so far.)

loss of taxpayer dollars

Every major news outlet included in this analysis has devoted more coverage to Solyndra than to the report of war contract waste and the MMS scandal combined.

But some disparities prove more glaring than others. Fox News stands out for its incessant coverage of the Solyndra saga, which amounts to more than 8 hours of airtime -- almost three times that of CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC and CBS combined. Fox has devoted 140 times more airtime to Solyndra than it spent on the MMS scandal, and around 29 times more than it spent on the wartime contracting commission's report.

Shauna Theel and Jocelyn Fong contributed to this analysis.