Solyndra and the self-referential Beltway media cycle
Photo: Steve RhodesOne sign of Republicans’ success in hyping the Solyndra scandal is that they’ve got everybody calling it a scandal. Despite the turgid atmospherics, though, there still hasn’t been any official wrongdoing established, or even charged. It’s like an optical illusion of a scandal, a trick of the media light. Or, to mix metaphors, a hard candy shell with no nut inside.
But the political press loves candy. They have been immeasurably helpful to Republicans in creating the impression of a scandal because they really, really want there to be one. The Obama administration has been pretty boring to cover, what with all the policy this, policy that. Energy reporters in particular rarely get to write the kind of stories that get Drudge Report traffic. They’re thrilled about Solyndra and they’re sure as hell going to squeeze every bit of juice out of it.
Last Friday’s Solyndra news blitz illustrates the point pretty well. In response to sweeping demands from Republicans, the White House released another huge cache of emails. Poring over them, searching desperately for scandal-ish material in the 65,000 pages of documents the White House has handed over so far, the best reporters could come up with was that Obama had appointed, as political liaison for the program, someone who had “bundled” money for his 2008 campaign.
That guy, Steve Spinner, pushed the Department of Energy to wrap up work on Solyndra in time for a big event at the company’s new plant. It was a political deadline, yes. But to be clear: The loan had already been intensively reviewed and approved by several levels of professional DOE staff, with no interference. What Spinner was impatient with was the final push to get all the requested paperwork to the Office of Management and Budget so the thing could be officially announced. (OMB has always been hostile to the president’s clean energy agenda, but that’s another story. Oh, and Spinner’s wife worked at a big law firm that advised Solyndra, though by all accounts she and Spinner had both submitted to and satisfied conflict-of-interest protocols.
This is bad optics, to be sure. But it does nothing to impeach the process whereby the loan was approved, or the propriety of the loan itself. If that’s the worst all those reporters could find in all those emails, it’s hard to see how much longer this thing can limp along.
Those of you awake earlier this century might recall that the Bush administration outdid this “scandal” roughly once a week. Remember Cheney’s secret energy task force with fossil-fuel companies? Remember the illicit sex and cocaine at the Minerals Management Service? Remember “Brownie” at FEMA? Remember the manipulation of scientific reports on climate? Remember the $6.6 billion in lost reconstruction money in Iraq? Remember … oh hell, does anyone in D.C. remember anything?
Hm, I guess not:
Hell, even if reporters are just looking for Obama scandals to hype, they might check out the growing evidence of cozy collusion between the State Department and TransCanada, which is pushing to build the Keystone XL pipeline. There’s a hell of a lot more riding on that deal.
But that scandal’s not getting Politico’s three-story-a-day treatment. And why not? Because Republicans aren’t coordinating a huge push to hype it. This is one of those things that every political insider knows but far too few outside the bubble understand: Republicans and conservative Democrats drive the Beltway press, the Beltway press drives the cable talk shows, and, as any Hill reporter will tell you, every single member of Congress has cable news on in the background all day every day. Thus is established a self-reinforcing feedback loop: What conservatives are talking about becomes what “people are talking about,” so people talk about it. Republicans “raise questions,” therefore “questions have been raised” and the media covers it, then Republicans note all the questions that have been raised, then the media covers the Republicans’ concerns over all the troubling questions … and so on. It’s a perpetual motion machine.
It’s worth noting that the stories swirling around in that cycle bear no relationship whatsoever to what the broad American public cares about or believes (compare, for instance, the number of stories on the debt vs. the number of stories on unemployment). Unlike congressional staffers and reporters, Americans don’t even watch cable news. The total prime-time audience for cable news declined 16 percent last year to an average of 3.2 million viewers; Dancing With the Stars routinely attracts more than 20 million viewers.
The Beltway media feedback loop has become grotesquely self-serving and self-referential. It is now for and about plutocrats. And it gives plutocrats what they demand: tidbits and titillation that embarrass Democrats and discredit challengers to the corporate status quo (22 percent of Politico’s traffic comes from the Drudge Report). If political journos have to create the appearance of a scandal without any actual wrongdoing, well, it didn’t stop them when Clinton was president and it won’t stop them now. Solyndra-the-scandal is just too juicy too allow for any perspective on Solyndra-the-solar-company. After all, there’s ad revenue at stake.