The day before F.L. “Bubba” Copeland’s funeral last week, a conservative website published a podcast episode defending its articles that exposed the Alabama mayor and pastor’s secret online persona dressing in women’s makeup and clothing.
During the episode, 1819 News CEO Bryan Dawson and Editor-in-Chief Jeff Poor discussed their approach to covering Copeland’s private affairs, revealing that they received a tip about the beloved public servant on Oct. 30 and assigned it to reporter Craig Monger. They stressed that Copeland’s activities were already public on Reddit.
“It was a tough decision,” said Poor, who is also a writer for right-wing outlet Breitbart News, in the Nov. 8 episode. “But we made the decision, you stick with it. And I just–at that point, he’s a double public figure. And you—the people, I think, at the First Baptist Church of Phenix City had a right to know what their worship leader was doing.”
“I 100 percent stand behind our reporting,” Dawson added. “I’m not budging an inch. We did exactly what we were created to do. Did what I said we would do when we started 1819 News, and that is tell the truth. No matter come what may.”
The site ran its first piece on the mayor on Nov. 1 under the headline: “The secret life of Smiths Station Mayor and Baptist pastor F.L. ‘Bubba’ Copeland as a ‘transgender curvy girl’: ‘It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress.’”
In a follow-up story, 1819 News reported that Copeland “wrote erotic fiction about murdering a real-life local business owner” and “frequently used pictures and details from local residents in his online life,” including photos of a brother and sister, one of whom is reportedly underage, without permission for a meme on gender transitioning.
On Nov. 3, Copeland fatally shot himself on a county road as Lee County deputies tried to conduct a welfare check. His death has spawned a social media backlash against 1819 News—and a debate over whether the articles were truly in the public interest, or mere fodder for the culture wars over gender identity. (It should be noted that experts say suicide is rarely caused by a single event or circumstance but a combination of factors.)
“I’m seeing stories written about this in Mexico, the U.K., India,” said Dawson, a Colorado ex-con who found Christ in prison and has widely shared his own redemption story. He often wears a pin of the Alabama state flag on his jacket.
“Jeff and I have been reached out to by Washington Post, Guardian, The Daily Beast, NBC in New York is reaching out to us. This story has shaken, shaken things up in the leftist community,” he continued.
“And at the end of the day, I say, we did our job, we did what we had to do.”
Dawson and Poor did not return messages left by The Daily Beast.
It’s unclear who tipped off 1819 News to the small-town mayor’s alter ego on the Internet, where he reportedly posted photos of himself cross-dressing under the moniker Brittini Blaire Summerlin and referred to himself as a “thick transgender woman.”
According to 1819 News, “Copeland promptly deleted the accounts and asked them not to be made public due to his family and position as a pastor” when contacted by the site.
“Just my wife knows about it,” Copeland told 1819 News. “It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress. I have a lot of stress, and I’m not medically transitioning. It’s just a bit of a character I’m playing. … I don’t go out and seek solicitation or anything like that.”
“It’s something that I don’t intermingle with the other. It’s private. I don’t do it in the public or anything like that. … It’s just a fictional character I made up to relieve stress.”
Copeland compared his activities to “dress-up” and “cosplay.” “What I do in private life has nothing to do with what I do in my holy life,” he added. “Does this have any effect on me being mayor, that I sometimes put on a dress or sometimes put on makeup? Does that have anything to do whatsoever with me being mayor or being a pastor?”
As pastor, Copeland addressed the first article at a Wednesday night service, saying he was the “object of an Internet attack” and it was “not who or what I am.”
“Yes, I have taken pictures with my wife in the privacy of our home in an attempt of humor because I know I’m not a handsome man or a beautiful woman either,” he said. “I apologize for any embarrassment caused by my private and personal life that has come publicly.”
The exposure wouldn’t stop him, he said, from serving his city and church. “I have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “A lot of things that were said were taken out of context.”
The 49-year-old husband and father-of-three was a longtime government official—elected mayor of the city of about 5,400 people in 2016 after a stint on a county school board—and owner of a local grocery store, the Country Market in Salem.
Copeland told a friend, former Phenix City School Superintendent Larry DiChiara, that he was living through “dark days” following 1819’s reports.
“I decided to send him a text, just to say, ‘Hey, Bubba, you’re a good man, you’ve got a big heart. Don’t let this get you down. Call me if you need me,’” DiChiara told The Daily Beast. “Hang in there.”
“He was such a down-to-earth person that there was no one that he came in contact with that he didn’t become friends with,” DiChiara said. “He was just a big ol’ teddy bear that always had a smile for people, always a kind word. You couldn’t help but like him.”
Asked who might have instigated the negative stories about Copeland, DiChiara said, “It’s still a mystery to us.”
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Man, who did he anger?’ Because somebody was going after him. And I started reading and seeing some of the comments that people were making. And it really upset me because I knew how hurtful this was going to be for him and his family.”
“It’s pretty inhumane to go after the man. And not just the way the publication did … but how everybody else piled on. And they didn’t really have all the facts.”
On Facebook, Copeland’s mother shared similar sentiments. “Not making excuses for him by no means but he is a good person and has been great for the city through all his faults,” she wrote in a comment. “I know there are alot of skeletons in other people’s lives and I just wish I knew who did this. Pure hate and destruction.”
The outing of a person’s private life is especially dangerous at a time when LGBTQ rights are under attack across the country. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill banning transgender university students from participating in sports. The state has also banned gender affirming care for transgender youth.
In a statement to AL.com, the state’s largest news site, 1819 News referred to Copeland’s “victims” while sharing “thoughts and prayers” for Smiths Station residents, First Baptist Church parishioners, and the mayor’s family.
“Everyone, you know, freaked out. How dare he say victims? This man was basically John the Baptist in drag like, you know, he can’t. He couldn’t have,” Dawson fumed. Poor later added, “He had a lifestyle choice, but he had victims. None of this was victimless. That needs to be emphasized here.”
Last week, Dawson went on a conservative talk show and shared a “primary” reason for exposing Copeland: “I am a member of a Baptist church. Jeff is a member of a Baptist church. We tithe at these churches. Our children are in these churches. If our pastor was doing this, would we want to know? And the answer is obviously yes.”
“The left-leaning mainstream media is basically painting us out to be tranny hunters or something,” Dawson added. “The same way that they make cops—like they wake up in the morning and they go hunt down Black people.”
When the host, Steve Deace, equated Copeland to a “predator” and “groomer,” Dawson didn’t disagree.
The CEO claimed he hadn’t heard of “outing,” or disclosing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their consent, before the Copeland articles. “I guess that’s like some thing in their community,” he said, referring to LGBTQ people. “Outing is like the cardinal sin. I didn’t even know what that was until all this happened. He was outed, and then he killed himself, ergo Bryan guilty of murder.”
Since the 1819 News reports, two women have come forward to claim Copeland either posted their photos in online forums or used their name in his fiction. “I had some people start sending me photos that were posted of me on multiple porn sites, I guess you could say,” Ansley Summerlin told WTVM. A hair stylist told the TV station that he used her first and last name in one piece of fiction and portrayed her as “a porn star.”
Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said that while Copeland’s death is under investigation, cops found no evidence of criminal activity on his electronic devices.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Daily Beast that the private life of a public official is relevant to a news audience when it affects them in a meaningful way. She listed one example: If a public official is embezzling public funds to pay for hotel rooms for their extramarital affair.
“But when it is purely the private life of a public official, I struggle to see the public interest that’s served by reporting on that private life,” Culver said.
“I have a larger question about this case—about whether the private life of this mayor would have received this coverage if it weren’t related to gender identity and sexual identity in some way,” she added.
Still, Culver warned that the Copeland story “is such a complex situation, with so many different angles.” “We have to be careful that it does not get reduced down to ‘online outlet posts salacious material, outing local mayor and pastor, so he killed himself.’ That’s just not where we are, that is too reductionist.”
Culver said she would like to know what steps were taken in the reporting of this story and “at what point did the outlet consider the harm and engage in efforts to minimize harm.”
“Ethics is not about a code that is written down with rules that you follow,” she added. “Ethics is about the reasoning that goes into the decisions that we make, and the consideration we have for the harms that those decisions may cause. And ultimately, to be an ethical news outlet, you have to be transparent and accountable.”
Culver raised questions about whether the community member named in Copeland’s fantasy fiction knew about this before 1819 News revealed it. “Because if not, those are now knock-on effects of harm,” she said. “If no one knew about this anonymous or pseudonymous erotic writing, does revealing it to them actually harm them?”
“That’s something that we also have to think about as public communicators.”
On his recent podcast, Dawson said that Monger had to inform the woman identified in Copeland’s fiction. “Craig Googles her name and is like, ‘Oh, my gosh this person really exists and she has a business in Phenix City. We have to call her and let her know.’” (Dawson also said that until the Oct. 30 tip, he’d never heard of Smiths Station or Copeland.)
“Imagine what that woman must have felt like to hear one of her friend’s husbands who happens to be a mayor in the area… is writing this slasher porn erotica. And she, I mean, she melts down and of course, she would. Put yourself in that person’s shoes.”
Poor again defended the reporting: “You tell me that that is not a news story, then you’re not doing your job.”
1819 News, which launched in October 2021, describes itself in a LinkedIn overview as “a statewide, state-focused, full-service multimedia company” named after the year Alabama became a U.S. state. It boasts the tagline: “Honest news. Alabama values.”
“We provide hard-hitting news from a team of seasoned journalists,” the bio continues. “We deliver beat reporting and investigative journalism that exposes the truth and provides Alabamians with the vital information they need to actively participate in their civic duties.” It adds that 1819 is “raising the bar for journalism in Alabama.”
Its right-wing Christian bent may not be immediately obvious to new visitors.
“I think these outlets that have a particular take on any policy issues, such as LGBTQ rights, shouldn’t be trying to fool people,” Culver said. “They shouldn’t be disguising themselves as a neutral news site, when they are indeed not.”
National outlets, The Daily Beast included, have cited some of 1819’s stories, such as one where state Attorney General Steve Marshall told the website that women who take abortion pills could be prosecuted under a law that punishes pregnant women for consuming drugs.
1819 News was initially a “fully-owned subsidiary of” the Alabama Policy Institute (API), a conservative think tank formerly known as the Alabama Family Alliance, which was co-founded by now Congressman Gary Palmer. (Palmer said he was inspired to launch the group after working with anti-gay evangelical powerhouse Focus on the Family. While API claims to be non-partisan, its activities aren’t LGBTQ friendly. The organization’s Alabama Center for Law & Liberty has opposed local ordinances that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.)
But in January, the Steve Bannon-approved site announced it was formally independent from API. “It became clear years ago that our state needed an independent news organization operated by people with Alabama values,” Caleb Crosby, the institute’s then president, said. “When we met Bryan, API knew he was the person to make this idea a reality.”
For his part, Dawson thanked API for helping “get 1819 News off the ground” and create “a genuinely independent news organization.”
Despite this swaggering of independence, Dawson isn’t shy about his views on LGBTQ and gender issues. In August, he tweeted that the “gay movement” wants “us to like, love, and accept behavior that most of society is uncomfortable with.”
“Wanting to be allowed into a hospital to be with a sick or dying loved one is reasonable,” he added. “Wanting us to sit back while you permanently mutilate children’s genitals is not, nor is exposing them to drag queens and gay parades with dudes in assless chaps getting whipped.”
In response to a December tweet asking, “What’s a niche topic you could give a 45 minute presentation on with zero prep?” he replied, “Biblical masculinity and the war on Manhood.” Dawson wrote in another post that month, “In our gender confused society that is steeped in feminism, it is imperative that we go back to the fundamentals found in Genesis, in the creation order. God made things a certain way and it was good.”
Meanwhile, 1819 News’ editor-at-large, Erica Thomas, told one local radio station this summer that she once “snuck” into the back office of a Home Depot to snatch the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training materials.
“There was a big stack of files and I just glanced at them and I looked through, and I saw their inclusion training,” Thomas said, in remarks that caught the attention of AL.com. “They’re saying to their employees, ‘you have to accept this. You have to do this.’”
“To force people to believe a narrative that maybe some don’t want to believe is just so wrong,” she added, insisting she was an “investigative reporter” who “didn’t do anything illegal.”
Dawson said he and Crosby decided in early 2021 that they needed to create a competitor site to AL.com. “The timing was perfect,” Dawson said in a podcast about his life. “God was all over this.” (Dawson takes frequent shots at the Pulitzer-winning news organization, saying recently, “We’re being shamed for our way of life by the left-leaning media outlet of record which is AL.com.” He added, “They hate the state they live in, and they want you to hate it too. If you would only accept Karl Marx into your heart, and become a progressive like them, you also could be enlightened.”)
Before launching 1819, Dawson said he worked for USA Radio Networks and helped a group raise $6 million for Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.
But his path to journalism wasn’t traditional: It’s something he would take on years after serving prison time for intimidating a witness in a drug case in Colorado.
Court records show that in 2007, Dawson was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a violent crime causing death or serious bodily injury, aggravated robbery, and extortion but pleaded guilty to witness/victim retaliation. (He has said that his attorney negotiated a plea bargain that resulted in a 16-year sentence.)
At the time, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that Dawson and his victim were suspects in a 2006 motor vehicle theft case. Dawson, according to the report, accused the man of being a snitch—before beating him with a padlock and chain and tasing him, sending him to the hospital.
Dawson says he faced 384 years in prison because of his prior felony convictions, resulting from his work for “very unsavory characters,” as he told one Christian radio show. “You could call them Organized crime cartels, those type of people, that I really had no business being [involved with as] a kid from suburbia, but there I was.”
He told Real Life Radio that he beat a friend, who was keeping stolen motorcycles for him at his home, “within an inch of his life” for giving intel to cops.
Dawson told Our American Stories that he spent some time on the lam and that Duane Chapman, also known as “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” refused to chase him “because I was supposedly, you know, too threatening or menacing or whatever…”
While incarcerated, Dawson adds, he found God and turned his life around, becoming penpals with a girl who rejected him in eighth-grade and eventually marrying her.
According to corporation filings reviewed by The Daily Beast, Dawson registered 1819 News, LLC, in December of last year. A certificate of formation indicates the company conducts business with the Alabama Media Foundation, a nonprofit.
Formed the same month, Alabama Media Foundation’s paperwork lists three directors: Dawson, an Alabama cryptocurrency promoter named Joshua Rhodes, and Mark Peeples, who appears to be a local developer involved with an anti-abortion group Lifeline Children’s Services, which provides counseling promoting adoption.
Rhodes, the founder of Crypto Y’all, an investment coaching program, was featured in an 1819 News podcast in 2022 but his ties to the founding of the Alabama Media Foundation weren’t disclosed in the episode.
Rhodes and Peeples did not return messages from The Daily Beast.
A cached version of 1819’s “About Us” page, which is no longer active, states the news outlet is “a non-profit LLC.” The state AG’s charity database doesn’t contain an entry for 1819 News, and the Alabama Media Foundation’s license is listed as expired.
In its 2021 tax forms, API listed 1819 Media LLC as a related organization and its total income as $1,077,500, with end-of-year assets as $590,251.
The 1819 News website solicits one-time donations, and under its membership page, declares, “We exist to provide you with high quality honest journalism that has no agenda other than the truth. At 1819 News, we carry water for no one.” Some membership plans come with a long-sleeve tee with the words: “Kindling cultural and civic revival.”
Friends and community members are reeling from Copeland’s loss, and the online bullying and rumor mill that continues after his death.
“These people that did this,” DiChiara told The Daily Beast, “they acted like they were the judge, jury and executioner, and that’s just not right.”
DiChiara said that in the wake of the 1819 News report he penned a Facebook post railing against online bullies. “When I was superintendent, many of those same people that were bullying him online about this issue are some of the same people who used to call me and complain that their child’s being bullied in school or on school bus,” he said.
“What I saw was a feeding frenzy,” DiChiara added. “It was like a bunch of sharks going after some fresh meat that was just thrown in the water. I’m so disappointed with my fellow Americans and my fellow Crhsitians. Because what was done was not very Christian like, I can tell you that.”
Another friend, who has known Copeland for 15 years, told The Daily Beast, “I have to imagine Bubba excelled at politics in part because of his natural ability to make others feel seen and heard. If you saw him he had a way of making you feel like he had been hoping to see you. If you talked to him, you had his full attention…”
“He reminded me once that it was his Christian charge to ‘love everyone, all the time’ and since the day he said that to me, I think about those words a lot and remind myself that we are all commanded to love everyone all the time,” added the friend, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared being targeted online by trolls.
From the friend’s perspective, Copeland’s outing led to his death.
“Locally I’ve literally never heard anyone have a bad thing to say about Bubba,” they added. “I can’t imagine why that news outlet decided to go after him. I have to imagine they just opportunistically came upon this information and decided it would bring them attention. I had never heard of them before this.”
“I wish Bubba had never talked to them. I don’t think they ever had a concern for his well-being or the well-being of the people that loved him.”
If you or someone you know may have thoughts on suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-273-8255).