U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Texas attorney general subpoenas Media Matters after report on X

Incident Details

Date of Incident
December 1, 2023
Location
Austin, Texas
Case number
8:23-cv-03363-PX
Case Status
Ongoing
Type of case
Civil

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Institution
Legal Order Venue
State

Chilling Statement

REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, seen at an August 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, subpoenaed watchdog Media Matters on Dec. 1, 2023, after the group reported on X, formerly known as Twitter.

— REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER
December 1, 2023

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Dec. 1, 2023, demanded that Media Matters for America turn over what the media watchdog called a “sweeping array” of materials related to its reporting, according to court documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Media Matters sued on Dec. 11 to block the “civil investigative demand,” an administrative subpoena that is part of a probe launched Nov. 20 by Paxton into what his office characterized as “potential fraudulent activity” under the Texas Business Organizations Code and the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

The probe followed the Nov. 16 publication of a Media Matters report that found advertisements for major brands appeared next to pro-Nazi posts on X, formerly known as Twitter. Several major companies paused their advertising on the platform shortly after the report and following a post on X by owner Elon Musk that appeared to endorse an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

Paxton, a Republican, said he was “extremely troubled” by allegations that the progressive, Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit had manipulated data on X. “We are examining the issue closely to ensure that the public has not been deceived by the schemes of radical left-wing organizations who would like nothing more than to limit freedom by reducing participation in the public square,” he added.

The allegations of data manipulation were contained in a Nov. 20 lawsuit filed by X against Media Matters and senior investigative reporter Eric Hananoki in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. X’s suit alleged that the group and Hananoki, who wrote the story, manipulated the platform’s algorithms to produce feeds in which advertisers’ posts appeared next to pro-Nazi content, with the intent of harming X’s relationship with advertisers.

The suit sought unspecified damages and asked a judge to order Media Matters to remove the report from its website and social media accounts.

Media Matters President Angelo Carusone, in a statement after Musk filed the suit, said, “This is a frivolous lawsuit meant to bully X’s critics into silence. Media Matters stands behind its reporting.”

In its suit against Paxton, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, where Hananoki lives and works, Media Matters said that the Texas attorney general demanded “a sweeping array of materials from Media Matters and Hananoki, including documents and communications about their research and reporting.”

The suit called the investigation “retaliatory” and an “extraordinarily invasive intrusion into Plaintiffs’ news gathering and reporting activities [that] is plainly intended to chill those activities.”

Media Matters accused Paxton of violating the plaintiffs’ First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, as well as its rights under reporters shield laws in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and asked the court to permanently block the investigation.

Carusone, in a Dec. 17 interview with MSNBC about the suit against Paxton, said, “In some respects, it was really our only path because the alternative would be to do nothing and have him continue to barrel ahead with this investigation, which he says could be both civil and criminal.”

Carusone told the Tracker in a phone interview that Paxton’s investigation added a “layer of unpredictability” in terms of “what could be exposed and what information somebody could get access to, and the process for that.” He added that the probe “leads to a culture, internally, of self-censoring.”

Paxton’s office did not reply to an emailed request for updates on the investigation.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 11, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey opened his own investigation into Media Matters. In a letter to the watchdog group, he alleged that it appeared to have used the “coordinated, inauthentic activity” described in X’s lawsuit “to solicit charitable donations from consumers,” and that his office would look into whether this violated Missouri’s consumer protection laws, “including laws that prohibit nonprofit entities from soliciting funds under false pretenses.” Bailey instructed the group to preserve all records related to the case.

Three days later, Bailey announced that he and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry had sent letters to several major companies that paused their advertising on X, including Disney, IBM and Sony, informing them of the investigation into Media Matters.

Bailey’s office told the Tracker in a Jan. 4, 2024, email that there were no further updates in the investigation.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].