Former New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson was frustrated when he called Citrus County’s library office Wednesday morning.
He had read about local commissioners saying they would not pay $2,700 for digital subscriptions to the New York Times for 70,000 library cardholders. “Fake news,” the commissioners had said, professing their support for President Donald Trump.
Fine, Alderson thought. I’ll pay for it.
“Honestly (I) was outraged by the attempt to censor responsible journalism, and the idea of not making the New York Times or frankly any newspaper available to library members was ridiculous,” said Alderson, who lives in St. Petersburg and is a special adviser for the Oakland A’s. He said he reads the New York Times and considers himself an independent voter. He declined to say whether he voted for President Trump. The people at the library, he said, made note of his name and said they would get back to him.
“I’m sure there are many people who felt the same way,” Alderson said.
He was right.
Citrus County has received so many emails about the controversy that its computer servers temporarily crashed, according to spokeswoman Cynthia Oswald.
“Never happened to little Citrus County before,” she said. “Nothing like it.”
Word of the commission’s decision took off with help from Trump himself as he shared stories on Twitter about the move and subsequent backlash.
For several days following the council’s Oct. 24 meeting, commissioners received a relative trickle of feedback, mostly from residents. Some of those emails are excerpted below, just as they were written.
“Thank you for canceling the NYT (New York Lies), its at the top of the list for fake news,” wrote a man from Crystal River.
Commissioner Scott Carnahan, who had spoken most strongly against the New York Times, replied: “Your very welcome and with a price tag of $2700 dollars a year is outrageous. Plus we have enough fake news in this country.”
Not everyone was so supportive.
“Mr. Carnahan, you in particular, stated that you did not want ‘the New York Times in this county’. Should we expect some goons will come to our house to check our devices? Are you that afraid?” a couple from Lecanto wrote. “Ugh. Anyone who fears knowledge should not hold public office. You are not leaders, gentlemen. What a shame.”
Carnahan responded, “I made my decision solely on fiscal responsibility. It’s not the taxpayers’ responsibility to pay $2700 for a online publication. They can use this money in other place to enhance our great library system.”
When the Tampa Bay Times and Washington Post picked up the story from the Citrus County Chronicle, the debate ratcheted up even more. The conversation in the commissioners’ inboxes devolved.
“Shame on you!” more than one person wrote.
“Kiss my tourism dollars goodbye. You’re nothing more then redneck a*******. Don’t bother f****** replying, turds,” another wrote.
Oswald said the county’s tourism office has received emails from people threatening to stop visiting Citrus. An author who writes about sports car racing called the commissioner’s actions “disgraceful” and said, “I am encouraging people NOT travel to your county via my social media sites.”
One person didn’t explicitly mention the controversy but wrote: “Now that I have to boycott Citrus County, and can't return to the beautiful Homosassa, where is the next best place to see manatees?”
Oswald responded: “Citrus County is the only place to swim with manatees. You can see manatees in other areas of Florida in areas where the water temp. is warmer than the ocean in the winter. If I can be of further assistance please let me know.”
Amid the growing anger, out-of-town residents looked for ways to send money.
Two GoFundMe pages raised a combined $6,179 from 222 individual donors for the Citrus County Library System by late Wednesday. Oswald said other people have called to offer direct contributions.
“I am a Librarian,” wrote a user named Laurie Charnigo, who donated $30 to one of the GoFundMe fundraisers. “We do not select materials or deselect materials based on a political view. A robust library with ALL types of information and all resources made available to our citizens is central to a healthy democracy.”
The libraries normally accept donations, Oswald said, but they have never seen this kind of rush. Administrators don’t know what to do.
Eric Head, director of the system, explained his standard response to people wanting to pay for the digital subscription in an email to another county official Oct. 29.
“I’ve informed them that currently we do not have this subscription available, however the Friends (of the Library) appreciate any and all donations,” Head wrote.
In separate messages, he said the system spends $8,909 a year on print-only newspaper subscriptions, including $981 for the Citrus County Chronicle; $1,664 for the Tampa Bay Times; $2,990 for the New York Times; $1,882 for the Wall Street Journal; and $1,392 for USA Today.
The library’s board, Oswald said, will discuss how to spend donated funds at a meeting Nov. 14. Five days later, the county commissioners will once again take up the digital subscription issue and possibly vote on their next step.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.