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Friday, December 23, 2022

More on the "News"--and on "Matrix"

Here’s another item on the state of the news media, and on why we should guard against both the weakening of elite legacy newspapers and the disappearance of local news. The emphasis in this case is on the local side. This one involves a series of recent stories that have been published by Floodlight News, which describes itself as "a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the powerful interests stalling climate action," in collaboration with conventional news organizations. I don't consider advocacy "newsrooms" a substitute for straight news reporting, and I’m uneasy about such collaborations, and about the degree to which NPR and other news entities take money from and work with groups and funding organizations with particular interests and viewpoints. It's a perilous arrangement. But the reporting seems solid.

The stories involve an entity called Matrix LLC, which charmingly and vaguely advertises itself on its remarkable web page as "A Comprehensive Approach to Problem Solving." I'm surprised a phrase like that hadn't already been trademarked by David Brock or Jack Palladino. I would give Matrix a clearer description, but it dislikes clear and candid self-description ("'Invisibility is more powerful than celebrity,' reads a plaque hanging in Matrix's Montgomery office," notes one story). A lawyer for Matrix, on whom more below, calls it “a strategic communication resource for companies in a wide range of industries,” which is close to no description at all. Its clients are equally reticent. Frankly, I'm not sure what to call it. "Political consulting firm" hardly does it justice. "Secretive and pernicious organization" would be a good start. 

The first story, a collaboration between Floodlight and The Guardian that ran in July, describes, inter alia, apparent surveillance of journalists and politicians, often in the interest or at the apparent behest of two major power utilities, Alabama Power and Florida Power and Light (FPL). Drawing on internal documents they obtained, the reporters suggest that such operations were carried out by Matrix employees directly, or funded by and through Matrix.

One line in that story reads: "Matrix also exerted political influence through the press, with its operatives acquiring control of a Tallahassee-based politics news site, The Capitolist. That gave Matrix consultants and FPL executives input on Capitolist stories." That sort of activity is the basis for the two most recent stories, both published this week. The first is an NPR/Floodlight collaboration describing, in awful detail, "six news outlets across Alabama and Florida with financial connections to the consulting firm Matrix LLC." These online news outlets have varied politics but one thing in common, the story suggests: their willingness to carry water for Florida Power and Light and Alabama Power, attacking its critics and those who advocate for such outlandish schemes as actually holding a formal rate hearing for the first time in decades. Here's a passage:

A tally of the five still-functioning sites show they have a collective audience of 1.3 million unique monthly visitors. 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.

Matrix shrewdly took advantage of the near collapse of the local newspaper industry and a concurrent plunge in trust in media in propelling its clients' interests.

"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," says former Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler.

That's true. I've used at least some of these sites. I assumed they were reasonably trustworthy. And they were certainly necessary, given the consolidation, decline, and death of so many local news outlets in this region, as well as the rest of the country. (This also reminds us why it's so important to maintain the quality of elite national newspapers, which have the resources and skills to provide coverage of events beyond Washington, LA, and New York. They can't or won't do so if those resources are devoted instead to daily recaps of jokes on late night TV, light features on Christmas at Dollywood, or major takeouts on 17th century history. Their decline into collections of thought-pieces by grad-school dropouts and wall-to-wall coverage of Twitter controversies disserves news coverage in the hinterlands as well as its power centers.) In their place, we have the sorts of online "news" organizations that have "collectively received, at minimum, $900,000 from Matrix, its clients, and associated entities between 2013 and 2020."

In the piece, "All of the media organizations deny their coverage was shaped by those payments and deny they acted unethically." In the same story, the editor in chief of an outlet called Alabama Political Reporter "acknowledges that Matrix also paid for reporters to do research for the firm, an atypical practice for newsrooms." His deathless justification: "We have to make money." Particularly poignant, albeit disgusting, is the story’s discussion of an outlet called Florida Politics:

Of all the leaders of sites with links to Matrix, only one, Florida Politics Publisher Peter Schorsch, acknowledges he doesn't observe traditional journalistic practices when deciding what to cover.

In an interview, Schorsch says he practices "combination journalism": He says Florida Politics' coverage is not dictated by advertisers, but it often gives them favorable coverage. And, he says, sometimes he gives them more coverage.

"Once a relationship is developed, if they come to us with the pitch [to cover a story], yes, they are going to be at the front of the daily line as opposed to a national advertiser making a pitch who I've never dealt with before," Schorsch says. "I will say there's a very big wall in our operations" between advertisers and coverage.

A 2021 invoice shared by Schorsch shows that Florida Power & Light paid the site $43,000 for advertising, enough to cover the cost of a full-time reporter. Schorsch says his reporters do private research for clients too, though he would not specify what that entailed.

By his own account, Schorsch also was paid roughly $100,000 by Apryl Marie Fogel, the publisher of Alabama Today, another of the Matrix-linked sites. The money went for help with "editorial and digital tech services," he tells NPR and Floodlight. Fogel, who is also former Matrix CEO [Jeff] Pitts' romantic partner, received more than $140,000 from Matrix, the firm's records show. (She declines to comment on her ties to Matrix, saying "not my monkeys, not my circus.")….

[Schorsch] defends his model of journalism.

"I'm not trying to pretend that I'm an angel or anything like that," Schorsch says. "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."

It should be obvious that there is journalism and there is not-journalism. "Curatorial journalism," for example, is not actually journalism. And certainly "combination journalism" is not either. What three decades of enthusiastic references to “democratizing the press,” “citizen-reporters,” “public journalism,” “cheap speech,” and so on miss is professionalism, a concept that does not include within it detailing one's reporters to do "private research for clients." At that point, you might as well call yourself a private investigative agency that happens to publish a pamphlet from time to time to amuse the public. But Schorsch isn’t wrong when he says there's not much left in this f***ing space.

The third, but I hope not the last, story, also with NPR, is no less astounding. You should just read it. In short, it describes a freelance producer who did work for ABC News in Florida—while also taking thousands of dollars from Matrix and apparently using her credentials as an alleged journalist to attempt to undermine and embarrass individuals whose positions were uncongenial to Florida Power & Light.

The usual denials and refusals to comment are involved. An added twist is that the two leading figures at Matrix, Joe Perkins and former CEO Jeff Pitts, fell out when Pitts left the entity and are in litigation, so there are plenty of opportunities for each to blame the other. In other stories, when asked what Matrix has actually done for them, its clients have said things like, "As you know, under current law, consultants and advertising firms are not required to detail expenditures....Matrix has assured us that should the law change, they will be more than happy to comply." It is apparently unthinkable that a Matrix client might volunteer information about what Matrix did for it, or instruct its client to do so. (The client in this case is the mayor of my university’s hometown, Tuscaloosa’s Walt Maddox.)   

I should add that I’m less concerned here about lawbreaking; it's not clear any is alleged. Rather, I'm disturbed by the corruption—in the sense, more important than the narrower sense of dishonesty or illegality, of moral contamination or depravity. Most corrupt conduct is perfectly legal. It's the way the world works, although being comfortable with phrases like "it's the way the world works" is itself pretty good evidence of one's corruption. (The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of naïveté. The journey from innocence to experience is a lifelong one. The journey from experience to corruption is short and swift.)

I should be clear that the corruption doesn’t run along partisan lines. As the stories note, Matrix was happy to subsidize "news" outlets of varied politics, as long as they came through in the clinch. The list of folks who have used Matrix's services or received its money, only some of whom have ended up in prison or other legal trouble for various things, cuts across party lines, even though Alabama is largely a one-party state. It includes former Democratic governor and convicted felon Don Siegelman and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox. But it has also helped Republicans, business interests, business-aligned PACs, and so on. It includes some politicians I used to respect, although respecting someone who consorts with Matrix is impossible for a decent person. Using corruption in the small-c sense, I have long held that the problem with my home state of Alabama is that it leaped directly from 19th-century corruption into 21st-century corruption without much of a 20th-century good-government phase. Matrix is the dictionary definition of 21st-century corruption, and it is bipartisan. Its corrupting effects are evident. Maddox used to be thought of as a pretty decent mayor. It's been some time since anyone sensible has said that about him.

That took me a little further afield, for reasons I'll note at the end. But the connection to the news is evident. Only some of our readers live in the usual metropoli, and even those places have been losing their newspapers at a rapid rate. (I won't speak of broadcast news, for evident reasons.) If you live in most of the country, you too have probably turned to what look like independent online news sources that cover news or local events in your state or region. Of course it's the Internet, and you may approach them with reasonable skepticism—as you may also approach more established news entities. But if they look legitimate, seem to act legitimate, and occasionally carry a useful and decent story, you may think you are getting a proper substitute for the local papers we used to have. The Matrix stories indicate otherwise. As the story about the ABC producer suggests, these activities make it hard to assume that even established news entities are able to police their own field. As for the others: well, "We have to make money." 

Personal disclosure: Stories about Matrix are particularly interesting to me because it was heavily involved in my wife's unsuccessful reelection campaign when she served on the Tuscaloosa City School Board, with Matrix having been paid some $100,000 by a slate of candidates in that local school board race. (The why is beyond me. But construction is a big deal in any city.) Its clients included my wife's successful opponent, Cason Kirby, a graduate of my law school who paid Matrix some $20,000 during that campaign and who now has the dubious honor of having acted as a lawyer for that entity. (His wife, Madolyn Kirby, was or is a Matrix employee, including being paid by Matrix while serving, apparently without salary, as campaign manager for Walt Maddox’s gubernatorial campaign.) It was also paid by Lee Garrison, the apparent architect of running that slate, who while on the board regularly advocated for the school system's bond business to be handled by the investment banking firm of Frazer Lanier. After his political service, he went to work for that firm, which later on, over objections, became the sole firm handling a $500 million urban development plan that has been Mayor Maddox's signature project. Finally, a breeding ground for both employees and clients of Matrix is the Machine, a student group, also secretive and pernicious, that has operated at the University of Alabama for decades and was involved in helping defeat my wife. 

I think this disclosure is called for, but it does not affect the accuracy of anything I wrote about, or my concerns about the corruption of--among many other things--state and local news sources. It affects only my sense of pleasure in sharing these stories.  


Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 23, 2022 at 11:29 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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