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Buying the press
An important climate story is going viral. You can help make it go further.
On Monday, Floodlight and NPR published an important story about the fossil fuel industry’s secretive attempts to buy off the press. It’s already going viral on Twitter. But I need your help to make it go even further—and I have some new details today that I think can help us do it.
First, some backstory. In case you don’t know, Floodlight is a really cool non-profit news collective that partners with local and national news outlets to investigate the corporate and ideological interests holding back climate action. You can more about Floodlight in our interview with founder Emily Holden here.
In their latest partnership with NPR’s David Folkenflik, Floodlight reporters Mario Ariza and Miranda Green discovered that at least six news websites across Alabama and Florida have been secretly taking money from the electric utility industry’s favorite consulting firm: Matrix LLC.
These websites—Yellowhammer News, The Alabama Political Reporter, Alabama Today, The Capitolist, Florida Politics and now-defunct Sunshine State News—have a combined 1.3 million monthly viewers, and are influential in state business and politics. They all claim to be independent news outlets, and sources for reliable local political journalism.
But a trove of documents leaked to Floodlight and NPR show that, from 2013 to 2020 these “news” outlets have received at least $900,000 from Matrix. With those payments, the consulting firm “sought to ensure much coverage was secretly driven by the priorities of its clients”—namely, Alabama Power and Florida Power and Light (FPL), which are each waging political wars on clean energy in their respective markets.
This is a high-stakes story for both the climate and democracy. It shows fossil fuel interests taking advantage of a struggling local news environment to push an anti-renewable agenda on an unwitting public. It reveals an insidious corporate strategy to erode the free press—one of the core pillars of democracy—for profit.
The Floodlight and NPR story also shows how easily some in the journalism world can acquiesce to this strategy if they’re not held to account. (See: Peter Schorsch, the publisher of Florida Politics. Read his quotes near the bottom of the piece justifying the arrangement with Matrix. I truly have no words for that man.)
This is why I need your help. An independent press is necessary not only for a functioning democracy, but for maintaining a healthy climate. I care very deeply about all three of those things. So it feels necessary to do everything in my power to shine a light on such a blatant attempt to destroy them.
Matrix has a plaque in their office that says "Invisibility is more powerful than celebrity.” I think we should make them famous.
It’s already working to some degree. My Twitter thread on the story has reached over 1 million people. The reporting has also attracted the attention of local and national politicians, including Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. NPR itself is a huge platform. There’s no telling how many they’ll reach.
But I think we can do better. To do that, we need more original content on these stories. Tik Toks, Reels, Facebook posts, tweets; it can’t just be a few people on one or two platforms. If you’ve got the time, make something. Write something. Tell someone. Make it taboo and unacceptable to engage in journalistic deception.
On that note, Floodlight and NPR have follow-up story out today that’s ripe for potential virality. It’s actually almost more outrageous than the first.
The new report shows that, in addition to paying whole news outlets to run favorable coverage for electric utilities, Matrix paid an actual ABC News reporter to publicly harass Florida politicians whose stances on environmental regulations ran counter to FPL.
Kristen Hentschel, a freelance producer for ABC News, received at least $14,350 to confront anti-FPL politicians in public while claiming to be doing reporting for ABC. Of course, Hentschel was not doing reporting for ABC—she was using the confrontations to make news-like videos for Matrix, which was working on behalf on FPL.
You may think that surely, ABC News would not take kindly to a reporter falsely using their name to make political propaganda videos for a consulting firm. But you would be wrong. ABC News did not respond to Floodlight and NPR’s requests for comment. According to the story, Hentschel still works for the network.
This is what I mean when I say it needs to be taboo to engage in journalistic deception. ABC News clearly doesn’t believe it will lose readers, advertisers or credibility if it continues to employ this person. The news outlets who took money from Matrix clearly don’t believe their numbers or reputations will be affected either.
The power companies who pay Matrix also clearly don’t believe they need to answer for any of the deeply anti-democratic actions Matrix has undertaken on their behalf. And those anti-democratic actions go much further than just paying off news websites. For Florida Power and Light, they include:
Following and spying on a journalist who wrote critically about FPL.
Trying to get an anti-FPL Democratic councilmember to voluntarily resign from office by creating a fake pro-marijuana non-profit and offering the councilmember a $250K/year job there.
Spending thousands to promote an independent spoiler candidate who was bribed to run for the sole purpose of pulling votes away from an anti-FPL candidate.
Though FPL clearly pays Matrix for these services, they are never made to answer for them. That’s because technically, the power companies don’t tell Matrix what to do; it simply tells Matrix the outcome it wishes to achieve. Matrix then goes off and does whatever it can to achieve that outcome, ethics be damned. This is allows the power companies to claim plausible deniability for Matrix’s actions. Sure, they paid Matrix. But they never told Matrix to do that!
The trend continues with these latest investigations. Neither FPL nor Alabama Power responded to NPR and Floodlight’s request for comment. It seems they believe this will all blow over; that real journalism doesn’t have the power to hold them to account.
I hold different beliefs. If you do too, spread the word.
Interested in learning more about the reporting behind these stories? I’ll be publishing an interview with Floodlight reporter Miranda Green tomorrow. To get it delivered directly to your inbox, make sure you’re subscribed to HEATED.
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Want to fight for the free press in a different way? Support the journalists and outlets you trust. One reason companies like Matrix are able to buy influence is because the local news environment is financially struggling. I’d be remiss not to point out that Floodlight and NPR are both non-profit news sources that rely in part on reader support.
And now for my least favorite note: pointing out that I, too, need money to survive. That’s why I’m running a 33% discount on all new annual subscriptions until the end of the year. This is the largest discount I’ve ever given on subscriptions. Every single one goes a long way.
Catch of the Day: Is it just me, or does Rosie look like Fish’s long lost sister?
Thanks to reader Sebastian for submitting.
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*A previous version of this story misspelled reporter David Folkenflik’s name.