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Beware the pitfalls of media 'spin'

BY REGINALD TUCKER. The recent 60 Minutes piece on the “Cleantech Crash” reminds us that the proper “context” in reporting the news is just as important as “content”— if not more so.

By now I’m sure most industry watchers have seen (or heard about) the so-called “hit piece” aimed at the renewable energy industry as told by 60 Minutes on the national CBS television network (original air date: January 5, 2014). At best, it has been largely been characterized as a one-sided feature highlighting all that is wrong with alternative energy investment strategies — at worst, a lame swipe at entrepreneurs, risk-takers and Government entities who are banking on a future incorporating more renewable options. 

Matthew Stepp, a senior policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy, voiced his criticism of the 60 Minutes report, paraphrasing GigaOm’s Katie Fehrenbacher: “The anatomy of what went wrong with venture capitalist investments in energy is important to dissect, particularly from a technology readiness and innovation perspective…Instead, CBS uses these issues to paint a broad brush of clean tech’s doom-and-gloom. As many have already rightfully pointed out, the resulting piece can best be described as an epic failure."

Not a single mention of the issue of climate change — which, according to Dana Hull of the San Jose Mercury News, puts into context the reason why the United States is supporting clean tech in the first place. Another glaring omission from the 60 Minutes feature: little mention of the slew of clean energy “success stories,” save for a scant nod to Tesla, manufacturer of high-end electric sports cars.

Others chimed in on the programme’s shortcomings. Jim Greenberger, executive director of NAATBatt, a trade association of companies in the advanced battery industry, said the segment (narrated by CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl) largely reiterates the popular storyline that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wasted billions of dollars on worthless “cleantech” investments, which the Chinese are now buying for a song. The idea that the DOE invested in something worthless and that the Chinese are now stealing it from us, Greenberger says, does not stand up to logic. 

What 60 Minutes got wrong was that it asked the wrong question,” Greenberger purports. “Indeed, the whole focus of the 60 Minutes segment was on the cleantech companies that have failed. The point Ms. Stahl missed is that it is irrelevant whether the companies that received DOE money succeeded or failed. The DOE never invested in companies, [per se]." As Greenberg points out, what the DOE invested in was technology. "Which investors ended up owning that technology was of no concern to the DOE, and rightfully so. All that was intended was to fund the development of a new technology that might one day reduce national reliance on petroleum-based fuels.” 

The question Ms. Stahl should have asked, Greenberger reckons, is what happened to the cleantech technology funded by the DOE? The answer to that question would certainly reflect much better on the DOE’s investment choices, he stated. For example: “In the advanced battery space, industry has made slow but steady progress on increasing the energy density of batteries capable of powering electric vehicles,” Greenberger explained. “Since 2009, by some estimates the cost of advanced automotive batteries on a per kilowatt basis has been reduced by half.”

Perhaps the most damning evidence of a “hit piece” comes from Vinod Khosla, who figured prominently in the 60 Minutes piece. In an open letter to CBS (published by CNNMoney.com), the founder of the VC firm that bears his name, Khosla ripped into CBS executives, citing a litany of factual errors, omission of statements that support the case for investment in cleantech, and generally lazy reporting.      

“At Khosla Ventures, we are focused on finding real solutions for energy independence, rather than just pontificating,” he stated. “The pontificators at 60 Minutes, with their agenda-driven bastardization of news reporting, failed to do the most elementary fact checking and source qualification.”

While there has been considerable debate online and in print about the merits of the 60 Minutes report, I think most reasonable people can agree on one thing — that a golden opportunity to present clean energy in a more positive light was regrettably missed.

 

Posted 10/02/2014 by Reg Tucker

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