How major southeast utilities paid local media for favorable coverage

This is an example of how big money can interact with the decline in local journalism to spread false or misleading information, including about the climate crisis and appropriate solutions.

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SOURCEEcoWatch

In Florida and Alabama, powerful utilities have lobbied against the renewable energy transition. 

At the same time, they funneled money through consulting firm Matrix LLC to six media sites in the two states that published coverage favorable to the utilities, as NPR and Floodlight revealed in a major investigation Monday. In one instance, the editor-and-chief and publisher of media site The Capitolist — Brian Burgess — wrote to Matrix asking for permission to publish a solar-positive story requested by a different sponsor. 

“Sachs Media is asking me for coverage on this, but wanted to run it by you first,” Burgess wrote to Matrix employee Abigail MacIver, as NPR  and Floodlight reported. “Need guidance on this ASAP.”

The story is only the latest to shine a light on the dirty dealings between the Montgomery, Alabama based Matrix and its southeast utility clients. The consulting firm’s dirty laundry was aired when its former CEO Jeff Pitts left the company at the end of 2020 to start a separate consulting firm. The firm’s founder, Joe Perkins, then sued Pitts for allegedly working for a Florida utility while still employed at Matrix. 

The resulting legal battle between the two men led to the release of hundreds of pages of internal documents detailing how Matrix had helped utilities resist the transition to renewable energy, as a joint Floodlight and Orlando Sentinel investigation revealed in July. The investigation found that Matrix had acted on behalf of utility clients Florida Power & Light (FPL) — the largest power company in the U.S., another Florida utility Gulf Power and Alabama Power.Groups connected to Matrix had also boosted power companies’ interests to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. 

For example, in 2019, Florida state Senator José Javier Rodríguez proposed a bill that would allow landlords in the state to sell energy from rooftop solar panels directly to their tenants. In doing so, the landlords would be able to cut FPL out of the equation.

“I want you to make his life a living hell… seriously,” FPL’s CEO Eric Silagy said in an email to two FPL vice presidents, as the investigation revealed. 

This was then forwarded to Pitts at Matrix, and the consulting firm funneled money towards advertising for one of Rodríguez’s opponents in the next election — a man with the same last name who later admitted he was bribed to run. The Rodríguez behind the solar panel bill ultimately lost to Republican Ileana Garcia by just 32 votes, according to CNN.

In another incident reported by a June investigation from the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel and Floodlight, Matrix employees surveilled Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe as he began to critically cover attempts by FPL to purchase community utility Jacksonville Electric Authority.

“The fact that this kind of behavior could be taking place in Florida, allegedly by people with ties to the largest energy company, should shock the conscience,” University of Florida journalism instructor Ted Bridis said in response to the news. 

The latest revelations also involve a violation of journalistic ethics, in the form of a carrot rather than a stick. The Floodlight-NPR story found that six media outlets had received at least $900,000 from Matrix, its clients, and related groups between 2013 and 2020. These outlets were Yellowhammer, The Alabama Political Reporter, Alabama Today, The Capitolist, Florida Politics and Sunshine State News, which is no longer in operation. 

“A tally of the five still-functioning sites show they have a collective audience of 1.3 million unique monthly visitors,” NPR’s David Folkenflik and Floodlight’s Mario Ariza and Miranda Green wrote. “Many of their consumers are political professionals, business leaders and journalists — people who help set the agenda for lawmakers and talk radio shows in both states. These readers have been unknowingly immersing themselves in an echo chamber of questionable coverage for years.”

An analysis by the reporters looked at the coverage of Alabama Power — which operates a coal plant that is the No. 1 single source of climate pollution in the U.S. — on the three Alabama-based sites. It found that most of the stories name-checking the utility were either positively slanted towards it or borrowed language from utility press releases. 

In Florida, Matrix paid at least $180,000 to the now-closed Sunshine State News. This outlet launched while FPL-ally Rick Scott was governor of Florida and covered him favorably. It ended its coverage a year after Scott’s election to the U.S. Senate, but Burgess, a former Scott-aid, started The Capitolist. 

During the time that Alabama and Florida utilities were encouraging favorable coverage, they were also battling renewable energy. For example, FPL put at least $8,055,000 towards promoting 2016’s anti-solar Amendment 1, as the Energy and Policy Institute reported at the time. This effort was ultimately defeated, according to Ballotpedia. 

In response to the NPR and Floodlight revelations, both Alabama Power and FPL declined to comment. Perkins said that Matrix only paid news outlets for advertising and other conventional services and, in a lawsuit, has blamed all wrong-doing on “rogue employee” Pitts. Pitts, meanwhile, did not comment on the report but has claimed in court documents that Perkins was aware of everything Matrix did while he was CEO.

All of the media outlets covered by NPR and Floodlight maintained that they did not allow ad payments from Matrix to shape their coverage and most maintained that they followed standard journalistic practices. Florida Politics publisher Peter Schorsch, however, said he practiced something called “combination journalism,” meaning he will sometimes give more coverage to advertisers with which he has a pre-existing relationship. 

Overall, the story is another example of how big money can interact with the decline in local journalism to spread false or misleading information, including about the climate crisis and appropriate solutions.

“The reduction in just the size of the press corps covering state government has created a vacuum that I think tends to be filled by people who have agendas beyond serving the public interest,” former Miami Heraldexecutive editor Tom Fiedler said in the report.

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