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60 Minutes screws up again, this time on clean energy
I'm not quite sure what is up with 60 Minutes lately, but their story pitch meetings seem to have taken a turn for the silly.
[O]n Sunday, 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl concluded that "instead of breakthroughs, the [cleantech] sector suffered a string of expensive tax-funded flops" after stimulus investments, including the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program. However, 60 Minutes simply ignored the cleantech breakthroughs that did occur in order to advance this misleading narrative. of the story
The central premise appears to be, to use the shorthand word for things, Oh My God Solyndra, and that the government embarked in a terrible boondoggle by helping to fund promising clean energy companies because, shudder, some of them didn't work out. How many of them didn't work out, you might ask, that being rather central to the premise of boondoggle?

Three percent. Well, less than three percent. Most fine capitalists would salivate at a 97 percent success rate—no, strike that, most fine capitalists would salivate at a 60 percent success rate, and kill their own mothers to achieve one in the 90s. It also means that, statistically speaking, the government stimulus program to jump-start clean energy companies has met with considerably fewer failures over the years than, say, 60 Minutes reporting has in the last few months. If we're talking about which things ought to be shut down or at least given a good, solid looking at, just saying.

More on 60 Minutes below the fold.

The Stahl effort seems to have suffered the fatal but common journalistic flaw of conflating different things and pretending, for the sake of narrative, that they are the same. It is certainly true that the "clean tech" sector became a darling of the venture capitalist community, a few years back, and that some number of those venture capitalists subsequently lost their shirts on the deals. (Well, their cufflinks. Well, one cufflink. No reason to be maudlin about this.) Don't get me started on the vagaries of venture capital; suffice it to say that it is fashion-driven. The "internet boom" of the Clinton era can still suffice as all-encompassing example, with money pouring into any firm that did things over the magic wires, even if those things were utterly pointless or had no apparent profit potential beyond selling t-shirts with their logo emblazoned on them. Then the things predictably go bust, and smart money wanders off to declare some other sector the new big thing and the dumb money follows them, pours lots of money into another round of mostly arbitrary me-tooisms, and the process begins anew.

If your story is about venture capitalists being sad at losing money, then, point taken; take the story and run with it! Conflating that with the notion that clean energy has itself failed because some of the companies have, though, takes an otherwise interesting story and turns it shallow. Conflating it further with a robustly successful government stimulus program because, shudder, a single-digit percentage of companies later failed—now that takes it from shallow to lazy, as if some poor sap in the back room realized the original story about roving bands of venture capitalists being sad was a meager half-story at best and decided to finish it up with some stock footage of Solyndra!! scraped from the bottom of Darrell Issa's shoe.

So where is the clean tech sector at, in the midst of this supposed bust? Huge new solar farms have been created—are we supposed to be angry that they do not turn sunlight into ice cream? Tens of thousands of jobs were created—but the profit margins are insufficient for the venture crowd, is that it? The price of solar panels has plummeted due to expanded capacity, something that was very much the point of helping to expand the sector, but it has indeed worked to crowd out some of the companies that could not match the new prices—welcome to capitalism.

What, precisely, is the story here? What was the purpose? "Some companies fail" seems a damn weak investigative premise, though certainly at least a dirt-simple one. This seems like one of those stories that was shopped around for a while—hello, fine journalists, I can get you some insight from some Sad People With Money on why they are currently Sad, but the declaration that because certain wealthy people are sad the entire clean energy sector has "very little to show" for itself, to use the 60 Minutes declaration, is pompous, Wall-Streetish drivel. You could take the exact same footage and make a story about how the private sector tried mightily to replicate the modest successes of a utilitarian government stimulus program and instead fell on their profit-chasing ears; it would certainly be a more defensible narrative, though you would run the real risk of making certain people even sadder. You could take the same footage and do a lot of stories, in fact—so why take a boom-bust cycle among the tight-knit venture capitalist community and morph it into clean tech is doomed and gubbermint has a lot to answer for here?

To twist a metaphor from Joe Romm, it would be like doing a story on how AOL isn't doing too well these days and using that to declare that THE INTERNET IS DOOMED. It shows narrative preconception, not analysis, and we ought to try a little harder than that.