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How energy companies buy positive spin in local media

How energy companies buy positive spin in local media

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A Florida Power & Lighting technician repairs a line in Miami Gardens in 2016.

A Florida Power & Light technician repairs a line in Miami Gardens in 2016. Photo: Alan Diaz (AP)

According to an investigation by NPR and Floodlight News released Monday, a political consulting firm has been helping some of the country’s most powerful utilities pay local news outlets to run positive stories and propaganda and weed out criticism.

The investigation details how Matrix LLC, a Montgomery, Alabama-based company, has paid six local news outlets hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past decade to serve its utility customers, which include Florida Power & Light and Alabama Power.

Matrix LLC’s work for some utilities has been previously exposed. In July, leaked documents investigated by both the Miami Herald and Orlando Sentinel detailed how Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, had helped pay local news outlet The Capitolist to keep positive reporting and Generate attacks on the energy supplier’s enemies. But the new investigation uses hundreds of internal documents, dozens of interviews and analysis of coverage and social media posts to uncover how the company’s influence spread outside of this one news outlet to five others over a period beginning as early as April in Florida and Alabama in 2013. Overall, the investigation found that these outlets received at least $900,000 in payments from Matrix and/or its customers and affiliates over a seven-year period.

NPR’s analysis found that three Alabama news sites reported mostly positive or neutral coverage of Alabama Power, the state’s largest utility, with at least one story being just a copied press release. Two reporters from the Alabama Political Reporter told NPR that some stories about the utility “were subjected to intense and unusual scrutiny by editors.” in one case a story was killed. Meanwhile, nonprofits and other groups associated with Yellowhammer News, including an anti-renewable energy nonprofit that runs its Yellowhammer News Facebook page, received money from Shell groups associated with the utility.

In Florida, emails reviewed by NPR show that The Capitolist editor-in-chief Brian Burgess contacted Matrix staff for permission before publishing a story favorable to solar energy . Matrix staffers eventually gave Burgess the green light to tell the story because “it makes him look like he’s not in our bag and it’s not bad for” Florida Power & Light.

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Earther reached out to all news outlets mentioned in the NPR story for comment. Bill Britt, the owner and editor of the Alabama Political Reporter, said that NPR “inaccurately represented what I told them and omitted facts entirely” and that its outlet took money from Matrix for its advertising services, as it did at other advertisers is the case.

Allison Ross, the owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia, told Earther in an email that the site has “no relationship, financial or otherwise” with Matrix or the group, whose Facebook page NPR reported linking it to the company was. (The last post on the page is from 2016, and Yellowhammer is listed as “responsible” for the page on Facebook.) “Our media company is financially supported by numerous advertisers and sponsors, all of which were properly disclosed at the time of publication.” , she says.

The Capitolist didn’t respond to our request for comment by the time of publication, but told NPR that the outlet “stands by the accuracy of every story it publishes.” We left a phone message at the Matrix LLC offices and they have not responded as of the time of publication. Florida Power & Light and Alabama Power also did not respond to our requests for comment.

Since its inception, Matrix LLC has employed stealth tactics, including the creation of shell companies, to sway the media on behalf of its clients. As NPR reported, a plaque in his Montgomery office reads, “Invisibility is more powerful than fame.” Ironically, many of the documents reviewed by NPR came to light because the Matrix founder sued the former CEO in 2020 for his work at a utility company in Juno Beach, where Florida Power & Light is headquartered. For his part, in legal documents, the former CEO has accused the company of “using fake groups and digital platforms to use individuals as a method of influencing public perception and litigation.”

The only newscaster interviewed for NPR’s story, Florida Politics editor Peter Schorsch, called what he practices “combination journalism” and said he’d rather publish a story that was by an advertiser than an unknown entity is offered, but there is a “very big wall in our operation” between advertisers and reporters.

Schorsch, who texted Earther that he would “let his quotes speak for themselves in the NPR story,” also pointed to the dire situation of local journalism.

“I’m not trying to pretend I’m an angel or anything,” Schorsch told NPR. “But… man. When I leave there won’t be anything left in this damn room. There’s like the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, and you’re devastated.”

Utilities like Alabama Power and Florida Power & Light are among the most influential political players in state buildings across the country. They’re also key players in the energy transition, and in some cases blocking progress: Alabama Power currently owns and operates one of the country’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants and has been taken to court by environmental groups over its solar rooftop fees. Florida Power & Light, on the other hand, directly funded and authored a bill in the state legislature that year that would have halted the growth of rooftop solar in Florida.

Oil companies have a long history of manipulating media and inventing new ways to get their message across to the public. As we reported in August, Chevron made a particularly aggressive move this year when it launched a “local news site” in the Permian Basin of West Texas. Like Texas, Florida and Alabama have seen significant declines in local news coverage.

Schorsch’s comments that “there’s nothing left” in Florida’s media reflect some of the challenges facing media across the country: How is local journalism supposed to thrive without at least some new form of financial help? But it’s easy to see how allowing monetary interests to sway reporting can quickly spiral out of control.

Alabama Today editor Apryl Marie Fogel received $140,000 from Matrix LLC, NPR reported. She paid $100,000 to Schorsch, who told NPR he was paid for “editorial and digital tech services.” Fogel’s resume reads like a conservative greatest hits list: After an internship at the EPA under George W. Bush and a stint with the NRA, she was the Florida director for Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity in the early 2010s.

In November, Fogel wrote a blog post about the decline of print media in Alabama. “Remember that for reporters who work in newsrooms that produce content where the reader cannot objectively distinguish hard news from editorials, it is incredibly disingenuous to tell readers who to trust and who not to trust,” she wrote. Rather than thinking about her own paycheck, she blames LGBTQ advocates (who else!) for helping Alabama newsrooms create an “elitist awakening narrative.”

When we asked her about the blog post in light of the NPR report, Fogel, who NPR reported is the romantic partner of the former Matrix CEO, repeated the comments she had made to NPR: “Not my circus, not mine monkeys.”

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