Selective media interest in ‘scandals’

I suspect the vast majority of Americans probably never heard a word about the shocking details surrounding the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) during the Bush/Cheney era. Granted, it was sometimes challenging to keep up with all of the Bush administration scandals, but this one was a doozy, even by Republican standards.

Loyal Bushies at the MMS adopted an anything-goes atmosphere led to Caligula-like corruption and debauchery. That’s not an exaggeration in the slightest — federal officials were literally trading cocaine and sex for lucrative oil contracts. In the Bush/Cheney era, MMS became one of the most corrupt government agencies in American history.

And yet, the media never really took an interest in the controversy, despite the salacious details. Much of what we learned about the scandal came in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, so most major outlets more or less blew it off.

Solyndra’s loan guarantees, though, are apparently fascinating.

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 charts help drive the point home. Here, for example, is how major print outlets treated the various controversies.

And here are how the cable networks covered the same stories.

The next question, of course, is why. Every major print and television outlet has covered the Solyndra matter significantly more than the MMS story, even though the Solyndra is actually quite dull, and there’s no evidence at all of official wrongdoing. Some of this, as I noted earlier, has to do with timing and what else the political world is focused on, but that alone doesn’t seem to explain the discrepancy.

The answer, I suspect, has to do with the efficacy of the Republican Message Machine. News organizations tend to care about stories that Republicans insist are, in fact, stories. The GOP has proven remarkably adept at pushing outlets to cover news that may not actually be newsworthy, but which become newsworthy by virtue of Republican apoplexy.

When it comes to playing assignment editor, Democrats just aren’t in the same league.