CANTON — Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik is calling for an audit of North Country Public Radio and for the complete defunding of National Public Radio, after a former NCPR news director used her station email to advocate for political candidates, including herself.
In a statement sent early Tuesday, Rep. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, shared emails obtained by her campaign, showing that former NCPR News and Public Affairs Director Martha Foley Smith sent an email on Monday to the St. Lawrence University faculty and staff email list, asking them to vote for Democratic candidates, including herself, running in Canton town and village races in the general election. The email also urged recipients to vote yes on the ballot propositions posed to every New Yorker this year.
Ms. Foley Smith is a Canton Town Council member, appointed in January through the end of this year. She is running on the Democratic and Focused on the People tickets against Republican and Conservative Robert T. Santamoor for a two-year unexpired council term, to fill the seat vacated last year by former Councilor Karin S. Blackburn.
A St. Lawrence Plaindealer reporter prior to joining NCPR, then WSLU in 1981, Ms. Foley Smith is known as a “founding mother” of the NCPR news department, according to a story published in the Watertown Daily Times noting her July 2019 retirement. Until Tuesday, Ms. Foley Smith contributed to NCPR’s programming as a volunteer, co-hosting “Natural Selections,” a nature show that airs Thursday mornings.
In her statement announcing the discovery, Rep. Stefanik blasted the local news station and the national news organization NPR as a whole, demanding an apology.
“The taxpayers of the north country deserve an audit of NCPR’s activities, which are funded by hardworking taxpayers,” she said. “It’s never been clearer, once we take the majority in 2022, we must defund NPR. They can campaign for the Democrats on their own dime, not on the taxpayers’ dime.”
NCPR and NPR are separate organizations. NCPR is an operating department of St. Lawrence University, an affiliate of NPR, also a nonprofit organization. That affiliation, along with a fee, gives the station the ability to air programs and news generated by the national organization, and NCPR reporters often contribute reporting to NPR.
Rep. Stefanik pointed out that, by law, organizations registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofits are barred from directly or indirectly campaigning for or against any candidate for elected office.
On Tuesday, NCPR station director Mitch Teich said in an interview that he was disappointed in Ms. Foley Smith for using her NCPR email to advocate for political candidates.
“I’m disappointed in Martha’s judgment in using her legacy email address to send a campaign email even to a closed (email) list-serv,” he said. “We have a strict policy in our ethics guidelines that prohibits employees from running for office, or using work email to campaign on behalf of themselves or anybody else.”
Mr. Teich said, although Ms. Foley Smith had resigned over two years ago, he was disappointed to see her even offer the impression that she was still an NCPR employee by using her former email address.
He explained that it is St. Lawrence University policy to allow former faculty and staff to retain their email addresses after retiring, and that NCPR’s email servers are hosted through the same system and under the same rules as the university’s email system.
Ms. Foley Smith herself admitted via email on Tuesday that her use of her NCPR email address was “careless and wrong.”
Mr. Teich said Ms. Foley Smith’s nature show with co-host Curt Stager has been placed on hiatus while the station finds a replacement host.
“Wile the show doesn’t feature any political material, we believe it is an important decision to maintain the credibility of NCPR as a news organization,” Mr. Teich said.
Mr. Tiech explained that NCPR does not receive direct funding from the federal government, but rather receives grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1967 to administer federal grants to public broadcasting stations.
According to the CPB website, NCPR received $423,186 in CPB grants last year, including $112,136 in COVID-19 aid. According to NCPR’s financial records, which are available on the station’s website, it received $482,116 in total federal, state and county grant funding in 2020, including CPB funding. The station brought in $3,009,960 from all sources that year.
“Our CPB funding represents a minority of the funding that we receive to operate,” Mr. Tiech said. “Most of our funding is through direct support of our audience members and our corporate underwriters.”
This flare-up isn’t the first time Rep. Stefanik has leveled strong criticism against NCPR and NPR. The congresswoman has made visits to core coverage areas without notifying reporters, and has called repeatedly for NPR to lose its federal support.
Mr. Teich said NCPR and its staff work hard to offer quality, professional, independent journalism, and he remains disappointed that NCPR has been left out of contact with the congresswoman.
“Rep. Stefanik is entitled to feel any way she does about North Country Public Radio, and whether we should receive indirect taxpayer support,” he said. “We believe we provide a valuable public service to the entire north country, without regard to our audience’s political affiliation.”