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How journalists uncovered power companies' ploy to buy the press
An interview with Floodlight reporter Miranda Green.
Today, we continue our coverage of Floodlight and NPR’s absolutely wild two-part investigation into Matrix LLC, a consulting firm working on behalf of electric utility giants Florida Power and Light and Alabama Power.
ICYMI: The first story showed that Matrix has been secretly paying at least six news political websites across Alabama and Florida to run negative coverage about its clients’ political opponents—politicians who favor environmental regulation and renewable energy.
The second story showed that Matrix employed an actual ABC News reporter to pretend she was reporting for the network while harassing political enemies of Florida Power and Light.
Since the second story came out yesterday, ABC News fired Hentschel. The investigation has also since been picked up by many outlets, including Politico, The Daily Beast, The Daily Mail, The New York Post.
These stories, however, may just be the tip of the melting iceberg. In an interview last week, Floodlight reporter Miranda Green told me that this investigation likely only scratched the surface when it comes to power company attempts to manipulate the press.
The effort that went in to uncovering these attempts alone, however, was herculean. In our interview, we go over what it takes to report a story like this; why it matters to both democracy and the climate; and the questions that still remain.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emily Atkin: Your first story in this series is about power companies spending a lot of money, through a consulting firm, to try and buy influence over political news websites in Florida and Alabama. What evidence did you find that the press was actually being influenced by these payments?
Miranda Green: Some of the evidence was pretty straightforward. At FloridaPolitics.com, for example, Florida Power and Light directly paid for what it called “advertising.” But what they paid for didn't really fall in line with what traditional advertising is. The founder of the website, Peter Schorsch, told us on the record that those who pay for advertising also get favorable coverage. Those are concepts that do not exist in general newsrooms.
Some of the evidence was more complex. The payments were through a company called Matrix LLC, which is a consulting firm that works on behalf of major power companies like Florida Power and Light and Alabama Power. And we found Matrix was paying a lot of these smaller online news sites across Alabama and Florida.
In some cases, we found documents of Matrix dictating coverage. In other cases, we found situations where Matrix was taking suggestions from their power company clients like for specific articles. In one instance, we actually found that [a Matrix employee] bought the majority rights to a publication, The Capitolist in Florida, and basically had full ownership of the company, despite the fact that it's not listed on their website at all.
EA: And how important are these news websites? Because when I'm reading this story, these are sites that I've never heard of, and they seem pretty small.
MG: Well, they’re not all that small. FloridaPolitics.com, for example, is a very well known political website. Peter Schorsch was actually responsible for breaking the news that Mar-a-Lago was being searched by the FBI before anyone else got that news.
But overall, the context is key. Think about what's been happening in the media landscape in the last ten years. On a national scale, there’s a large skepticism towards media and more larger, well-known names. With that, people have fled to smaller websites online.
Paired with that, we are then seeing local news sites and local newspapers completely diminished across the country. So these local news sites–which popped up right around the same time that politicians in Alabama and Florida were pushing back on these power companies—have filled in that void. Not only are they a new place for people to go and get their news, but they also seem to be more trustworthy because they seem local.
What we found looking at an analysis of their coverage is they essentially work as an echo chamber. All these different news sites were publishing very similar messaging. The way that they were describing these power companies was very similarly, overwhelmingly positive. But also the way that they were covering some of these politicians, even in these very local races. Politicians that were questioning power rates, that were wanting to have more regulation over the power industry, that were pressing environmental issues like water–all of a sudden they’re getting attacked. And they’re similar attacks across the board.
So let’s say you're reading AlabamaToday.com, and you think it's just a normal website. And you read something about your local regulator, and you're like, “Oh, interesting. I didn't know that.” And then you scroll over and you go to AlabamaPoliticalReporter.com, another normal-looking local website, and you're seeing the same thing. You're like, “Wow, two local sites that I rely on for news say the same thing about this guy. Maybe I should, you know, vote differently in the next race.”
That is basically what we saw in this reporting– a very strategic way of triangulating the news. And they all receive payments from the same consulting firm, Matrix.
EA: Do you think that you've uncovered all of Matrix’s attempts to secretly buy influence over news outlets and reporters on behalf of power companies?
MG: Definitely not. We've had to be very strategic with what we decided to include in this piece. We definitely think that there will be more strings to pull. Matrix has documented activities in at least ten states. It’s not hard to question whether they have done similar things in those states as well.
EA: I want to touch on your second story, about the ABC News producer who was publicly confronting political opponents of Florida Power and Light while claiming to be reporting for the network—when in reality, she was doing corporate propaganda work for Matrix. What was her name again?
MG: Kristyn Caddell is that the name that she has gone by on TV, but her legal name is Kristen Hentschel. That seems to be the name that she has been going by for the work that she's been doing from Matrix.
EA: The details in this story are absolutely wild. But to me, one of the most outrageous details was that ABC has continued to employ her despite knowing about this behavior. And that’s super disheartening, because for me it makes it seem like ethical lapses are not necessarily a death sentence for your journalism career, so long as you are driving that traffic and ensuring there are advertisers.
MG: It was very clear, based off of our reporting, that Hentschel represented herself as an ABC reporter when confronting these politicians. And when we talked to ABC and asked them if they could confirm whether she actually was indeed working on stories for ABC during the confrontations, they said absolutely not.
ABC denied that while saying Hentschel still is, to this day, a freelance producer for them.
Editor’s note: ABC announced on Wednesday that is has parted ways with Hentschel.
EA: The companies highlighted in both your stories are Alabama Power and Florida Power and Light. That’s not Exxon. That’s not Chevron. These are what you'd call “power companies” or “electric utilities.” But would you consider these players to be part of the fossil fuel industry?
MG: The ambitions and goals of these power companies are to continue to generate power as cheaply and as deregulated as possible. These are the same goals that the fossil fuel industry has. The shared idea is that renewable energy is going to kill their profits. And [the power companies] have been fighting against proposals like solar on rooftops, in the same way that we've seen the fossil fuel industry fight against it, because at the end of the day, it hurts their bottom line.
Obviously at Floodlight, we focus on the oil and gas industry. We focus on utilities. We focus on climate change. But this story is really so much more. At the end of the day, this is really a story about political power and money, about who's going to have control of these systems, and who's going to come out on top.
EA: What are the big questions that still remain for you?
MG: I think in our reporting, what we wanted to always come back to is what this means for residents and the everyday ratepayer. In Alabama, Alabama Power is by far the most powerful company in the state. And Florida Power Light in Florida is one of the largest industries next to Disneyland. That means that the ratepayer and the everyday person is up against a giant with a lot of control.
In Alabama, residents have some of the highest electricity bills in the country, and they have not had an open rate hearing to open up Alabama Power's books and explain why those rates are so high in nearly 40 years. And our reporting found that a Republican elected into office to try to do that was hounded by the these Matrix-funded sites and lost his reelection.
In Florida, we're seeing similar things. It’s the Sunshine State, but only 1 percent of homeowners in Florida have solar panels because it's so hard to make money back on the grid. Florida Power and Light has used Matrix to try to defeat those campaigns on solar panels, because at the end of the day, solar hurts their bottom line. But the remaining question is, how does this hurt or help locals who might benefit from having decreased power bills, or might want to be using solar instead of using fossil fuel energy to power their homes? That's always where it comes back to for me.
Emily Atkin: What does the reporting process look like for a story like this?
Miranda Green: At the center of it all was a massive document dump that started coming out of Matrix, because the two leaders of the company got into a legal battle with one another.
All of a sudden, these internal Matrix documents started getting leaked to reporters, including us here at Floodlight. We reviewed over a thousand different documents, including internal ledgers that show money payments, text messages, and photos that have shown an array of different tactics Matrix deployed on behalf of its clients, who those clients were, and who it paid.
We then use the documents as, essentially, a treasure map. We go to each spot on the map and make sure that it's truly what it says it is. What we have been doing over the past year has been verifying those documents, contacting people listed there, talking to locals, checking social media accounts, and looking at timelines.
EA: The details in this story are only the things you could nail down 100 percent, right? I assume there were probably some pretty juicy bits that you had to leave out because you maybe just couldn’t reach the right person to verify it on the record.
MG: Exactly. I think every reporter will always have details in every story they wish they could include but just couldn't fully nail down. There are definitely parts of that to the story that we didn't we didn't feel comfortable including because we wanted to be 100 percent sure. But there is a lot in here that we did feel that we could report on and that we feel very strongly about.
EA: I only bring this up because your story highlights why the public has such distrust in journalism. I think it's really important to try and let people know why this is something they should trust, when so much out there is untrustworthy.
MG: I think that's so important, Emily. And just to pull back the curtain a bit, once we finished reporting all this, it then went on to an edit. Then it went on to a fact checker who tore apart every single thing we said, made us literally link to every claim with documents or links or interviews. Then it went on to a standards editor within NPR. Then it went on to a lawyer who walked through every single sentence and made sure we could back up each claim.
This was not something that was thrown together lightly. And that's the kind of work that journalists pride themselves on.
EA: And it’s the type of work that really needs support and highlighting. Seriously, everything you guys do is in my “Stories I wish I wrote” tab in my personal Slack channel.
MG: Well we thank you, and soon hopefully we will be having a story together as well.
*A previous various of this story misspelled Peter Schorsch’s name.