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How Power Companies Are Buying Positive Spin in Local Media

An investigation from NPR shows how a shadowy consulting firm has helped utilities push their message in local media for years.

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A Florida Power & Light 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)

A political consulting firm has been helping some of the country’s most powerful utilities pay local news outlets to publish positive stories and propaganda and stamp out criticism, according to an investigation by NPR and Floodlight News published Monday.

The investigation details how Matrix LLC, a firm operating out of Montgomery, Alabama, has paid six local news outlets hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past decade in service of its utility clients, which include Florida Power & Light and Alabama Power.

Matrix LLC’s work for some utilities has been exposed before. In July, leaked documents investigated by both the Miami Herald and the Orlando Sentinel detailed how the firm had helped Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility, pay local news outlet The Capitolist to generate positive coverage and attacks on the utility’s enemies. But the new investigation uses hundreds of internal documents, dozens of interviews, and analyses of coverage and social media posts to uncover how the firm’s influence extends outside of this one news outlet to five more across Florida and Alabama over a period starting as early as April 2013. Overall, the investigation found, over seven years, these outlets received at least ​​$900,000 in payments from Matrix and/or its clients and affiliated organizations.

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NPR’s analysis found that coverage in three Alabama news sites about Alabama Power, the state’s largest utility, has been overwhelmingly positive or neutral, with at least one story just being a copy-and-pasted press release. Two reporters with Alabama Political Reporter told NPR that some stories about the utility “received intense and unusual scrutiny from editors;” in one case, a story was killed. Meanwhile, nonprofits and other groups associated with Yellowhammer News, including an anti-renewable energy nonprofit whose Facebook page Yellowhammer News operates, received cash from shell groups linked to the utility.

In Florida, emails reviewed by NPR show The Capitolist’s editor-in-chief and publisher, Brian Burgess, reaching out to Matrix staff to ask permission before publishing a story that was favorable to solar energy. Matrix staff ultimately gave Burgess the green light to run the story because “it makes him look like he’s not in our pocket and it isn’t bad for” Florida Power & Light.

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Earther reached out to all the news outlets mentioned in the NPR story for comment. Bill Britt, the owner and publisher of the Alabama Political Reporter, said that NPR “inaccurately portrayed what I said to them and omitted facts completely” and that his outlet had taken money from Matrix for its advertising services, as it does with other advertising clients.

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 was linked to the company. (The last post on the page was made in 2016, and Yellowhammer is listed as “responsible” for the page on Facebook.) “Our media outlet is financially supported by numerous advertisers and sponsors, all of which are properly disclosed at the time of publication,” she said.

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

Since its inception, Matrix LLC has used stealth tactics, including the creation of shell companies, to influence media in its clients favor; as NPR reported, a plaque hanging in its office in Montgomery reads “invisibility is more powerful than celebrity.” Ironically, many of the documents reviewed by NPR came to light because the founder of Matrix sued the former CEO in 2020 for his work with a utility company in Juno Beach, where Florida Power & Light is headquartered. In legal documents, the former CEO has, in turn, accused the company of “deploying phony groups and digital platforms to intimidate individuals as a method to influence public perception and litigation.”

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The only news operator who would be interviewed for NPR’s story, Florida Politics publisher Peter Schorsch, called what he practices “combination journalism” and said that he would be more likely to run a story pitched by an advertiser than an unknown entity, but that there’s a “very big wall in our operations” between advertisers and reporting.

Schorsch, who told Earther in a text message that he would let his “quotes in the NPR story speak for themselves,” also pointed out the dire situation facing local journalism.

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“I’m not trying to pretend that I’m an angel or anything like that,” Schorsch told NPR. “But ... man. If I go, there’s nothing left in this f***ing space. There’s like the Tampa Bay Times, the Miami Herald, and you’re down to nothing.”

Utilities like Alabama Power and Florida Power & Light are some of the most influential political players in statehouses across the country. They also are key players in the energy transition, in some cases stalling progress: Alabama Power currently owns and operates one of the dirtiest coal plants in the country and has been taken to court by environmental groups for its fees on rooftop solar. Florida Power & Light, meanwhile, was directly financing and writing a bill in the state legislature this year that would have kneecapped the growth of rooftop solar in Florida.

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Oil companies have a long history of manipulating media and inventing new ways to deliver their message to the public. As we reported in August, Chevron made a particularly aggressive move this year when it opened up a “local news site” in the Permian basin in West Texas. Like Texas, Florida and Alabama have experienced significant declines in local news outlets.

Schorsch’s comments about there being “nothing left” in Florida media echoes some of the challenges facing outlets across the country: how is local journalism meant to thrive without at least some new form of financial help? But it’s easy to see how allowing moneyed interests to influence coverage can quickly get out of hand.

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The publisher of Alabama Today, 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 interning at the EPA under George W. Bush and a stint at the NRA, she went on in the early 2010s to serve as the Florida director for the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.

In November, Fogel authored a blog post on the decline of print media in Alabama. “Remember, it is incredibly disingenuous for reporters who work in newsrooms that produce content where the reader objectively can’t tell hard news from editorial to tell readers who they should or should not trust,” she wrote. Instead of reflecting on her own paycheck, she then goes on to blame LGBTQ advocates (who else!) for helping Alabama newsrooms create an “elitist narrative of wokeness.”

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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, echoed the comments she made to NPR: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”