It’s been a month since Citrus County commissioners first mocked the idea of paying $2,700 annually to give the county’s library cardholders digital access to the New York Times.
The comments and jeers from the commissioners — which included calling the Times ‘fake news’ — went mostly unnoticed outside of Citrus County on Oct. 24. But, after the Tampa Bay Times and Washington Post wrote about the episode a week later, the news spread far and wide, even reaching the eyes of President Donald Trump — who retweeted stories about it on Nov. 5.
Emails to John Pricher, the director of the Citrus County Visitors Bureau, show just how far the story spread — and gives a glimpse into the controversy’s potential aftermath: A dip in tourism.
“(We) were looking forward to visiting your lovely town this winter,” wrote Fred Cardenas, from Los Angeles, on Nov. 5. "However, we have canceled our trip because we cannot fathom a county that bans a newspaper because of a few men who decide what’s true or not. If I was a resident of this county, I would be outraged and I’m a Republican.
“Maybe someday we will visit. I really (wanted) to see the manatees.”
The Citrus County commission had their official say on the issue on Tuesday, voting 3-2 to deny the library director’s request for digital subscriptions.
The final outcome, however, may have been merely a formality for potential tourists. To them, the damage was already done.
“My mother and I were planning a trip to spend a week to ten days in the Crystal River area,” wrote Weston Howland in an email. "We just saw that (commissioners) will not allow the library funding for the New York Times, calling it fake news. I am appalled ... Needless to say, we will NOT (be) venturing down to Chrystal River anytime soon.”
Another email, signed by a Rick Osborn, wrote: “Not a good move to mix your county officials’ political views to generate public policy. I won’t be stopping this year in your county as I (usually) do on my way to/from Fort Myers in Jan/Feb. I will do my best to avoid spending any time and money in your county.”
Howland, Cardenas and Osborn weren’t the only potential tourists to write Pricher and say they were canceling trips.
Alan S. Lunin got straight to the point in his email.
“I have a one week visit to Crystal River scheduled for January,” he wrote. “Your County Commission’s action has told me that I am not welcome. So I am going to Sanibel instead.”
Citrus County describes itself as a tourist destination that specializes in aquatic activities, ecological amenities and heritage, according to its official tourism web page, which also calls the county the “gem of the Nature Coast.” It’s locally famous for being the only place in the state where people can swim with manatees.
“I’m sure your county is great and the manatees are super cute (hope they don’t die due to global warming!), but I don’t think your place is the welcoming type,” wrote one emailer before signing off, “Peace dude."
Wrote another: “You must be embarrassed by your county commission and their vote on library funding ... Citrus County is a beautiful place. How could you elect such fools.”
In the group of emails to Pricher that was released to the Times by Citrus County, only one was in support of the commissioner’s comments and decision. Over 20 were against.
“As a Citrus County tax-paying resident I would like to make it known that I DO NOT support the New York Times left wing, often nonfactual or at the least skewed news story that too often read like opinion columns,” stated the lone email in support of the commission’s comments. “Furthermore, I do not wish any of MY tax dollars going to their pockets via any government spending including public libraries.”
Paul Palmer, a West Point graduate, had a different sentiment about the Times.
“As a reader of the New York Times for the past 61 years, the story that the Citrus County Government feels this paper is fake news causes me to tell friends, “Do NOT visit Citrus County,” he wrote. “Why not let the reader make up his or her mind as to what they should read? Most of my friends are college educated and do not need some local government officials telling them what they can or cannot read.”