After VPR pulls ads, Ralston objects to decision

MIDDLEBURY — A local candidate for Vermont Senate is engaged in an advertising dispute with Vermont Public Radio following the network’s decision to temporarily halt his company’s paid underwriting spots from the airwaves 30 days prior to the election.
Paul Ralston, a New Haven resident and the CEO of Vermont Coffee Company, is running for Senate as an Independent. Vermont Coffee is a longtime advertiser — known in public radio as an underwriter — on VPR, and had prepaid over $22,000 earlier this year to underwrite VPR programming throughout 2018.
But on Aug. 16 he received an email from a VPR employee informing him that following a complaint from an unnamed listener, VPR had decided to pull the company’s underwriting for the 30 days before this fall’s election, beginning on Oct. 8.
“A listener recently questioned VPR airing underwriting from a business when the owner is running for office and is closely aligned with the identity of the business,” read the email from Lesli Blount, VPR’s director of corporate support. “The inquiry prompted us to seek guidance from our peers at other public radio stations, as well as our FCC counsel.”
The result of that inquiry, the message continues, was the articulation of the following policy: “VPR will not air or display underwriting 30 days prior to the election for a business that includes all or part of a candidate’s name or if said candidate is integral to the identity of a business.”
Ralston told the Independent he was surprised by the decision.
“I was very taken aback by it,” Ralston said. “I had no idea that this was an issue, and I have a lot of questions about the policy.”
Ralston, who previously served two terms in the Statehouse as a Democrat, said his political pursuits had never affected his company’s underwriting during past campaigns. Of particular concern to Ralston is VPR’s recent determination that he is “integral to the identity” of his business — a standard that Ralston says lacks clarity.
“What’s the criteria? How do they know? Is there any test that’s applied to that decision? Can that decision be validated by an impartial person?” he said, stressing that his company’s three-sentence advertisement contains no mention of his name. “I think it has the potential to be applied in an arbitrary way. Unless (VPR) can clearly define what that means, it could be a problem.”
Scott Finn, the CEO of VPR, said he doesn’t share Ralston’s worries, noting that this approach was taken out of an abundance of caution.
“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” he said. “We would rather err on the side of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest and avoiding any potential to influence an election. So we err on the side of trying to be as ethical as possible.”
While Finn, who joined VPR in May, chose not to comment directly on Ralston’s case, he disputed the notion that anything of substance distinguishes this situation from VPR’s constant efforts to steer clear of conflicts of interest.
“The issue of a candidate owning a business, and that advertising coming up around their campaign, has come up before here,” he said, noting that “pauses” in underwriting have also been implemented in the past.
“The difference is, people were making these decisions here, doing their best to interpret the ethics guides that we follow, but I didn’t see anything that was written down to explain that. What we’re trying to do now is be a little bit more systematic about it,” Finn said.
In this case, the decision to suspend Vermont Coffee’s underwriting was made following a discussion by VPR’s staff leadership team. While Finn said that FCC regulations on political advertising were one consideration, the main factors were the ethical codes that bind VPR as a public media outlet.
“According to our lawyers, there’s nothing in the federal law that requires or prohibits us from doing what we’re doing,” Finn said. “It’s not exactly a legal issue, it’s more of an ethical one.”
Various public radio stations interpret their mandates differently, he said, leaving VPR’s leadership to reach its own conclusions.
Citing privacy concerns, Finn wasn’t able to specify whether the newly articulated policy would be applied to other candidates during the current election cycle, nor could he reveal the identity of the listener who made the complaint about Ralston.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how we discover a potential conflict of interest,” Finn said. “We would deal with it the same way.”
Although Vermont Coffee’s advertising is an important part of its business model, Ralston makes no claims that the 30-day underwriting pause will cause severe harm to his company’s finances. VPR has already offered to reimburse Ralston for the month’s costs, or move the underwriting to other dates.
“This has got nothing to do with the money. I’m not trying to make a contract dispute out of this,” he said.
Instead, Ralston said he’s focused on how a strict delineation between business and politics could change a state famed for its part-time citizen legislature. Ralston’s dual pursuits of business and politics are hardly unique here, and he fears that increased advertising restrictions could deter similarly situated Vermonters from engaging in politics.
“When a small businessperson like myself thinks of running for office, it goes through your mind: Is your business going to be hurt by this somehow? And that’s what feels like is happening to me,” he said. “When businesspeople in Vermont feel like they could be putting their employees or livelihood at risk, that’s going to weigh on their decision about whether to run for office. If, somehow, this policy were to take hold in the Vermont media, it would be a significant change to the Vermont political landscape.”
Finn, for his part, says VPR’s concerns are equally civic-minded.
“As a public media organization, we have a special level of responsibility, and roles that are different than other media organizations,” he said. “People trust VPR to go out of our way to be fair.”
Finn also cited the larger media climate.
“People need to have that sort of trust in their media sources. Across the country, that trust has been challenged by many people, so we take it very seriously and we think it’s important for a well-functioning democracy that we preserve that trust,” he said.
As Vermont continues to grow and develop, one expert wonders if such close ties between the commercial and political worlds will remain viable.
“In Vermont we have a closer relationship between business and politics than there is in a lot of other states,” said Bertram Johnson, a political science professor at Middlebury College. “It’s borne of a small-town, small-business mentality. We’re not going to see the big-time corruption that you see in New York because you don’t have companies that are really that big.”
“But we do now have some pretty big businesses,” Johnson conceded. “So that might be something we’d have to reconsider.”

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