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FPL makes unusual public attack on Miami Herald after solar power coverage

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 1/7/2022 David Ovalle, Miami Herald

Florida Power & Light has launched an unusual public attack on the Miami Herald and its senior Tallahassee reporter over coverage of the utility company’s lobbying on solar power policy — criticism the paper’s top editor called “unfair.”

FPL this week published a piece on its own website criticizing the news organization for not publishing the entirety of an editorial opinion piece written in response to a Dec. 20 Miami Herald story co-authored by Capitol Bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas about the company’s role in preparing legislation affecting rooftop solar power generation in Florida. FPL’s post was titled: “Truth Matters: Why is the Miami Herald afraid to let its readers hear opposing voices?”

Herald Executive Editor Monica Richardson, in a statement issued Wednesday, defended Klas and the paper’s reporting and said the state’s largest utility company “has crossed the line into an unfair attack.”

“Klas has been a highly regarded member of the Tallahassee press corps for more than 20 years. She does hard-nosed accountability reporting about FPL, the Legislature, governors and many other people and institutions,” Richardson wrote. “Some of her coverage of the largest electric utility in the state and the nation has been critical when important issues needed to be raised about solar power, rates charged to consumers, political influence and more. That’s a journalist doing her job on behalf of Herald readers and the Florida community.”

FPL posted its critique of the Herald as it faces increasing media scrutiny over its executives’ roles in so-called ‘dark money’ groups that have been used to attack political enemies and try and sway elections.

The Orlando Sentinel last month published a story describing FPL executives steering money to consultants who led the organization Grow United, which promoted “ghost candidates” designed to confuse voters in key races. FPL has insisted there’s been no wrong-doing related to political campaigns.

The use of ghost candidates and dark money has led to an expanding criminal probe in Miami-Dade, the Herald reported this week.

The Herald story on solar panels was written by Klas, the longtime Herald Tallahassee bureau chief, and Mario Alejandro Ariza, a reporter with the Floodlight, a news organization that explores how corporate interests stymie efforts to stop climate change.

Klas’ story, titled “Documents show FPL wrote bill to slow rooftop solar’s growth by hampering net metering,” detailed how the company wrote and delivered draft legislation to state lawmakers, at least one of whom benefited from a FPL donation. The bill could dramatically curb the growth of a practice known as “net metering,” which allows homeowners and businesses equipped with rooftop solar panels to sell excess power back to FPL.

The solar industry has criticized the proposed bill as a way for utility companies to keep their grip on power markets. FPL argues that customers with rooftop solar are being subsidized by other customers who continue to buy electricity and pay to maintain the power grid.

Three days later, FPL asked the Herald to publish an op-ed by David Reuter, the company’s chief communications officer, calling the story a “huge disservice, focusing on misinformation and petty anti-utility biases over facts,” blasting sources used in the article and criticizing Klas.

The Herald published most of the opinion piece as a letter to the editor after editing out the unfounded attacks on Klas. That decision prompted FPL’s 1,000-word-plus blog post, which included a timeline of its correspondences with editors and frustration over the pace of response. “The Miami Herald’s lack of journalistic balance and determination to keep opposing viewpoints out of its publication is why FPL has taken our own extraordinary step to expose its actions,” the post states.

In a public response on Wednesday, Richardson said, “the letter was edited by the Herald Editorial Board to stick to the facts of the net metering issue and published.

“Letters to the editor are routinely edited by the Editorial Board before publication. News editors and reporters play no role in the process. The Editorial Board is independent of the Herald newsroom, with a separate mission but the same standards for fact.”

In an email responding to a request for comment on Thursday, Reuter said that FPL still wants an answer as to why the newspaper published “an incomplete representation of what was submitted” as an op-ed.

FPL also published a letter on an unrelated issue sent to Herald management Nov. 22 by Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, who is running for agriculture commissioner.

He accused Klas of “attempting to influence” Democratic Sen. Randolph Bracy over issues of minority representation and redistricting for legislative seats. The letter quoted a recording — made by one of Simpson’s aides standing near Klas and Bracy following a Nov. 17 Senate Reapportionment Subcommittee meeting — and accused her of crossing the line from journalism to “advocating for organizations that will bring litigation against the Legislature.”

The letter, however, misquotes key parts of the exchange between Klas and Bracy, according to audio posted by Florida Politics.

For example, Simpson alleged Klas “encouraged” Bracy to ask certain questions during a subcommittee meeting because “we should hear about it before the courts get this.” Florida Politics’ audio reveals that Klas actually said ”we should hear about it in public forums like this.”

In a section not mentioned in Simpson’s letter, Klas adds: “As a reporter the more questions you guys ask, the better we can explain it to the public.”

An aide to Simpson on Thursday didn’t address the misquoting of Klas but said the office stands by the concerns in the letter sent to the Herald.

“In fact, the enhanced audio file from another media outlet confirms the concerns President Simpson shared with Ms. Richardson with even more clarity,” spokeswoman Katherine Betta said in an email.

Richardson, The Herald’s executive editor, responded in a Nov. 30 letter to Simpson, explaining that Klas was simply “doing the job that our readers expect.” FPL did not publish her response to Simpson on its website.

Richardson reiterated her points in her Wednesday statement.

“Simpson alleges that comments and questions made by Klas were inappropriate for a journalist. As I told the senator in my written reply, the Herald disagrees. Klas, who covered the last reapportionment process that was a legal quagmire for the Senate, was using her experience in that coverage to inform her work this time around. And her conversation with Bracy reflects that.”

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