Commissioners call New York Times ‘fake news,’ deny library funding for digital subscriptions

Commentary

Florida News You Can Use

The Citrus County commissioners who railed against a request by the local libraries to fund digital subscriptions to the New York Times. From left to right, their names are Jeff Kinnard, Ronald Kitchen, Jimmie Smith, Scott Carnahan and Brian Coleman. [Citrus County Board of Commissioners]

In Florida News You Can Use (not to be confused with News with a Twist, which I guess this might have been), The Washington Post reported today that “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 their roughly 70,000 patrons an easy way to research and catch up on the news.

But when their request came before the Citrus County Commission last month, The Post writes, “local officials literally laughed out loud. One commissioner, Scott Carnahan, declared the paper to be ‘fake news,’ going on to say, ‘I agree with President Trump. I will not be voting for this. I don’t want the New York Times in this county.’”

The Post reported that “all five members of the commission agreed to reject the library’s request.” The discussion took place Oct. 24, the same day the Trump administration announced plans to cancel federal agencies’ subscriptions to the Times and The Washington Post. While the Trump announcement and the Commission’s vote are not linked, “the controversy highlights how politicians nationwide are parroting the president’s disparaging rhetoric about the media.”

Citrus County is located amid the “swamps and springs” north of Tampa and is deeply conservative. It is clearly a “swamp” that Trump forgot to drain.

During the Commission discussion, Carnahan went on to say, “I don’t agree with it (The Times), I don’t like ’em, it’s fake news, and I’m voting no.”

The Citrus County Chronicle, reporting on the issue, inteviewd Jeff Kinnard, the commission’s chairman, who told the paper. “At some point you draw the line. I don’t feel like the county is obligated to subscribe to every major newspaper or every point of view.”

This was echoed by another commissioner, Brian Coleman, who said that his concerns were also political in nature. “I support President Trump. I would say they put stuff in there that’s not necessarily verified.”

In a not so surprising revelation, the Chronicle noted that “the four commissioners who agreed to be interviewed said that they did not read the Times.” So much for informed decision making!

After intense backlash, some commissioners are rethinking their vote. Commissioner Coleman said he had “made a mistake and that the matter should be revisited.”

But not all politicians from this little slice of Florida heaven feel the same way. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state representative from nearby Lake County, Fla., congratulated the Citrus County commission for their decision. “Lake County Commission should do the same!”

I think a little unpacking of this story is called for.

The Nazi regime’s book burnings targeted books that were viewed as being subversive or as representing ideologies opposed to Nazism. Yes, that’s several steps more serious than banning subscriptions to newspapers you don’t like. But, substitute “Trump” for Nazi, “Trumpism” for Nazism and “Cancelling subscriptions” for Book Burnings and what do you have? Citrus County Fla. Or, more critically, the Trump-led Federal government

OK, if book burning is the epitome of information suppression, how about censorship in general?

Behind the former Iron Curtain, Party-approved censors exercised strict control over newspaper content. In the Stalinist period, even the weather forecasts were changed if they suggested that the sun might not shine on May Day.

During the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, the first Russian televised announcement a day after the accident showed a black-and-white photo of the Chernobyl plant supposedly taken by a worker after the accident. The TV commentator told viewers that Western reports of fires and extensive damage were unfounded, and that cleanup efforts were steadily moving forward. “The trouble has passed,” he said. 

While the Western press provided extensive, and alarming, coverage of the accident, information inside Russia was sparse. Many Russians were left unaware that the accident had even occurred. In the news reports that trickled out, Soviet media stated that nuclear accidents like Chernobyl were “virtually impossible.” Pravda, the official Communist Party daily (kind of like Fox News in the U.S. today), eventually confirmed suspicions by experts around the world: that a fire and explosion spewed radioactive materials into the air. Yet it still said the situation was “under control.” That was blatantly false…how do you say it? Right, a lie! We’re all getting pretty familiar with that, aren’t we?

In 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) listed the following 10 countries as the “most censored in the world:” North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. By 2019, the list had been updated: Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Iran, Equatorial Guinea, Belarus and Cuba. (Hurrah! Trump’s great ally MBS’ Saudi Arabia finally made the list. I wonder if Jamil Khashoggi’s murder had anything to do with that.)

And in 2016 (are you listening Donald Trump?), Tanzania passed he Media Services Act, which gives the government the power to restrict and limit the independence of the media, giving much oversight to the director of information services. How do you pronounce Goebbels in Swahili?

Of course, you say the U.S. will never censor or close down media outlets (never is a very long time) because we have a “Constitutional right to freedom of the press.” But with another Trump presidential term we’ll likely have a 7-2 right-wing, activist Supreme Court, so don’t count your proverbial chickens. Just saying.

Look, at the end of the day, Florida is not all bad. The good commissioners of Citrus County have actually done us a favor by reminding us how deep a hole* we’re in. Have we reached the depths of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” or the press suppression of the countries on the lists of shame? Of course not. Are we moving in the “right” (er, wrong) direction? You know where I stand…how about you?

(*Funny about holes. Some people say that Citrus County is the sinkhole capital of Florida. Could be. It just could be.)

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy.

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