Alabama, Florida Power Utilities Allegedly Paid for Positive News Coverage

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD


No matter your political leanings, most of us pine for a free and independent press – especially regarding consumer matters. We all want to rest assured that our journalistic institutions aren’t beholden to special interests.

So when a report suggests that two of the biggest utility firms in the country may have been paying for favorable coverage, it feels like a betrayal (even if pay-to-play shenanigans like this are as novel as corrupt politicians).

NPR and Floodlight (a nonprofit newsroom) allege that Alabama Power and Florida Power & Light have been funneling money through consulting firm Matrix LLC, which then made its way to six news outlets across Alabama and Florida.

The financial links between Matrix LLC and the six news outlets is indisputable -- between 2013 and 2020, Yellowhammer, The Alabama Political reporter, Alabama Today, The Capitolist, Florida Politics, and the now-defunct Sunshine State News received a collective $900,000 from Matrix, its clients, and associated entities.

900K might not seem like a king’s ransom – especially as political scandals go – but considering print media’s inexorable decline, even $1,000 can go a long way. And the money, itself, is incontrovertible. It’s the intent that’s up for debate.

For the latter, NPR found that “In Alabama and Florida, Matrix sought to ensure much coverage was secretly driven by the priorities of its clients,” and in this case, those priorities seem to be fighting efforts to incorporate more clean energy into the grid.

For example, in 2021, Florida Power & Light pushed a bill that would’ve gutted the ability of homeowners to offset the costs of installing solar panels by selling power back to the company. The text of the bill was delivered to state senator Jennifer Bradley’s staff, and FPL made a modest contribution to Bradley’s political campaign two days later.

In the case of Alabama Power specifically, “An analysis by Floodlight and NPR of the three Alabama news sites with links to Matrix finds overwhelmingly positive coverage of Alabama Power,” with the vast majority of articles with the keywords "Alabama Power" positive in nature (or outright mirroring the company’s press releases).

For their part, Matrix offered up two somewhat contradictory explanations – first, that the payments were ad-related, and second, that most or all of the wrongdoing can be traced back to the firm's former CEO, Jeff Pitts, a "rogue employee.”

In addition, the six newspapers’ political leanings generally align with the best interests of Matrix Power and Florida Power & Light, but this much positive coverage goes beyond common ideologies.