The librarians of Citrus County, Fla., had what seemed like a modest wish: a digital subscription to the New York Times. For about $2,700 annually, they reasoned, they could offer an easy way for their roughly 70,000 patrons to research and catch up on the news.
But when their request came before the Citrus County Commission last month, local officials literally laughed out loud. One commissioner, Scott Carnahan, declared the paper to be "fake news."
"I agree with President Trump," he said. "I will not be voting for this. I don't want the New York Times in this county."
All five members of the commission agreed to reject the library's request. The discussion took place on Oct. 24, the same day that the Trump administration announced plans to cancel federal agencies' subscriptions to the Times and The Washington Post. While there's no apparent connection -- the Citrus County meeting began several hours before the Wall Street Journal broke the news of the new edict -- the controversy unfolding in central Florida highlights how politicians nationwide are parroting the President's disparaging rhetoric about the media.
While the Citrus County Commission is technically nonpartisan, the area north of Tampa is deeply conservative. At the Oct. 24 meeting, the proposal to budget several thousand dollars for a Times digital subscription was met with immediate disapproval and suspicion.
"Do we really need to subscribe to the New York Times?" Commissioner Ron Kitchen Jr. asked.
The other men seated at the dais chuckled.
"I actually was going say that," Carnahan responded. He had seconded a motion to hear the item only so that they could have a discussion about the Times, he said, volunteering his opinion: "I don't agree with it, I don't like 'em, it's fake news, and I'm voting no."
Suggesting that a lack of resources wasn't the problem, Carnahan said that the library could take the thousands of dollars that an institutional subscription to the Times would cost and ″do something else with it." And community members who really wanted to read the paper could simply sign up for home delivery. "I support Donald Trump," he concluded.
Flanked by a county flag depicting frolicking manatees, all four commissioners who were present agreed to turn down the request. When a fifth commissioner, Jimmie Smith, returned to his seat and learned what he had missed, he took no issue with denying the library funding.
"Why the heck would we spend money on something like that?" asked Smith, a former Republican state representative.
The commission moved on to other topics, approving a janitorial contract, issuing a proclamation recognizing Toastmasters and declaring October as "Friends of the Library Month," seemingly without any sense of irony. Afterward, two commissioners who hadn't spoken up during the meeting told the Citrus County Chronicle that they worried that agreeing to pay for the Times would lead to requests for subscriptions to more "radical publications."
"I don't feel like the county is obligated to subscribe to every major newspaper or every point of view," Jeff Kinnard, the commission's chairman, told the paper. "At some point you draw the line."
Another commissioner, Brian Coleman, said that his concerns were also political in nature. "I support President Trump," he told the Chronicle. "I would say they put stuff in there that's not necessarily verified."
The Chronicle noted that the four commissioners who agreed to be interviewed said that they did not read the Times.
Two of the county's four branch libraries get the paper only on Sunday, however, and library officials had hoped to broaden its reach. Unsurprisingly, the commission's decision came as a disappointment.
"Someone's personal political view does not have a place in deciding what library resources are available for the entire county," Sandy Price, the chairwoman for the library's advisory board, told the Chronicle. "Libraries have to ensure all points of view are represented."
Others were more blunt. "Citrus County, long known for sinkholes, can now also be known for censorship," Wall Street Journal photo editor Matt Riva tweeted. Critics made comparisons to the dystopian society depicted in the Ray Bradbury novel "Fahrenheit 451" and government censorship in North Korea, and accused the commission of "pure stupidity and ignorant thinking" and being "backwoods idiots."
The Chronicle reported Friday that they had been flooded with calls and emails from readers. Some commissioners began to backtrack, but only slightly. Carnahan told the Chronicle last week that while he still didn't think the county should pay for the Times, that had nothing to do with his personal views and was only a question of saving taxpayers' money. Meanwhile, Coleman told the paper that he had made a mistake, and that the matter should be revisited.
"Our decision should have been impartial, instead of having it become a personal thing," he said.
Meanwhile, other residents expressed support on social media for the commission's decision. Some echoed the accusations of "fake news," while others asked why people couldn't just read the print edition at the library, or suggested that anyone who wanted to read the Times could move back to New York.
State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R, of nearby Lake County, congratulated the Citrus County Commission for their decision. "Lake County Commission should do the same!" he wrote on Twitter.