Citrus County Commission Catches Florida's Attention Over New York Times Flap

Nov 11, 2019

Citrus County Commissioners will decide later this month whether to purchase a digital subscription to The New York Times for the county’s library system. The last two commission meetings heard from residents who were outraged when commissioners joked about not approving a $2700 contract for a digital subscription to the paper. The measure was brought up during a commission meeting a couple of weeks ago, and the ensuing discussion sent shockwaves through the county and around the country.

During the Oct. 24 meeting, Commissioner Scott Carnahan called The New York Times “fake news,” adding he agreed with President Trump’s description of the newspaper. He also said he did not want the paper in Citrus County.

The small Florida county became the latest flashpoint in the ongoing fight between President Trump and the media. Reporter Mike Wright of the Citrus County Chronicle, Eric Effron of NewsGuard, and Emily Bloch, President of the Florida Society of Professional Journalists Pro Chapter weighed in on the controversy, and the dangers of labeling legitimate journalism as fake news on The Florida Roundup.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity:

The Florida Roundup: Mike, What led to the initial discussion about The New York Times?

Mike Wright: Well, this was very innocent. At least I thought it was going to be just a zip line item on the agenda in late October. And, you know, $2,700 for a three-year contract the first two years, and a little bit under that for the third year for a digital subscription to The New York Times, the library. And again, it was very innocent. And it just kind of blew up.

Was the County Commission prepared for this, did it anticipate this kind of national attention based upon this ‘discussion ensued’ item in the minutes?

Mike Wright: No. I can guarantee you they did they did not anticipate the reaction, which was immediate, by the way. They became quite the national story this week. But even here in Citrus County, the first story we had that explain what happened from the commission meeting had an enormous pushback. Right off the bat, the initial responses from the public were very negative toward the board.  I called it a decision. I know they didn't vote, but they made a call, there on the board.

Since all the pushback has come in from around the country, how do you see these commissioners reacting? How do you think they'll resolve this?

Mike Wright: First of all, they're not happy with the attention—that's clear. They're not used to it. I mean, I don't know of anybody around here that could be used to what happened.

This past Tuesday, which was a regular County Commission meeting. I expected it to come up. I expected somebody from the public to bring it up. What I didn't expect was The Washington Post to have its story out that morning. And from then on, it just exploded throughout the day.

And the commissioners generally don't like that kind of pushback. Now, I could say that since then, two of the five seem pretty firm in there and where they're going. The other three seem like they're looking for a solution other than what they've come up with so far.

Mike, the lightning rod of attention here, I think arguably, has been one commissioner especially—Scott Carnahan. We invited the commissioner on the radio program. He did not have the time in his schedule to appear with us live. He's received a lot of the attention with the claim with The New York Times being what he called fake news. He said he doesn't want The Times in the county. Is this within his usual style of governing?

Mike Wright: Well, Scott can be a little—he's opinionated, as they all are. Sometimes there's not a whole lot of filter on some on these guys. But you know, that comment sure got my attention. You know, I was in the back of the room, you know, covering a county commissioner. I'm sure you guys have done this sort of thing. And yeah, and when a commissioner says, "I don't want The New York Times in this county," it gets my attention immediately and it would get the attention of the community as well.

Let's go now to Eric Ephron, editorial director at News Guard. Eric, tell us what News Guard's role is in helping us as consumers of media assess the information we're getting.

Eric Effron: Thanks. I appreciate the opportunity to do that. NewsGuard is a journalism organization where we have 35 or so journalists who are fully engaged in the process of rating and reviewing news and information sites of all shapes and sizes in the United States and in Europe.

What we do and this, I think, differentiates us from what other sort of fact checking organizations do, is we look at the standards that are practiced by the Web sites. So we look at criteria such as do they have a corrections policy? Do they tell you who owns this site? If they have an ideological agenda do they disclose that? And we then produce what we call a nutrition label, because we think the idea is to produce smarter.

So the model there, of course, is the nutrition label you see on food. And the concept is that we want to make consumers smarter about the information that they consume.

The reason why this story resonates so much with us at NewsGuard is that we work very closely with libraries. We have over 300 libraries that have installed the NewsGuard plug-in and allow their patrons to use the computers in the library that will then enable them to when they call up a Web site to see what NewsGuard has said about that. So that theory there is not to censor information, but to tell people more about the news that they're consuming.

Eric, this plug-in lives in a Web browser that you've partnered with these public libraries with. Are you a partner with the Citrus County, Florida, libraries? 

Eric Effron: No, not yet. But we would love to be. We do have, as I mentioned, 300 libraries now working with us. We don't yet have any in Florida, but we are here to serve. When we launched NewsGuard, I don't think we even imagined that this would resonate so much with the library community.

How do you rate The New York Times? What's the nutritional label for The New York Times?

Eric Effron: We have a system where we go through, as I mentioned, and look at all the criteria. The New York Times is what we call a green. We have greens and reds. And green means that the site passes the bulk of our criteria.

But what I think is really noteworthy is if you read The New York Times label, you'll see that we fully air the controversy over The New York Times. We talk about the fact that conservatives have long complained about The New York Times as having a liberal bias. We quote the newspaper responding to that criticism. We talk about Donald Trump and his tendency to refer to the Times as fake news.

So again, what we really are in the business of doing is trying to give people more information. So I would argue that the people of Citrus County would be smarter if they were able to access The New York Times label digitally in the library, because there's a lot of good information there.

Let's go now to Emily Bloch. She's president of the Florida Society of Professional Journalists Pro Chapter and also an education reporter with the Florida Times Union. You caused a stir recently, Emily, when you and your colleagues at SPJ decided to try to trademark the term fake news. Tell us about it.

Emily Bloch: The Society of Professional Journalists, we’re one of the oldest journalism groups in the country and we're an advocacy and trade group. Our Florida chapter, we decided to attempt to trademark the term fake news as a publicity stunt. To be candid, as a way to get people to talk about what fake news is. So if you go to fakenewstm.com, it actually takes you to a Web site we built that teaches you how to fact check a story yourself, how to see if the story is credible.

You've even started to send cease-and-desist letters to people who use the term fake news, including President Trump and the Citrus County commissioners. You've sent a couple of letters to them, right?  

Emily Bloch: Correct. So when this all started, we sent a cease-and-desist letter to Trump as a way to kick things off. And at the end, it says this is satire, but we urge you to stop using this term against the media because you can't just use fake news as a way to say you don't like a story. That's misleading and it's dangerous to our rhetoric.

So, yes, this week, in reaction to what's going on in Citrus County, we sent a cease and desist letter to the commissioner that used fake news against the media. And he's already responded, according to Mike's reporting. He actually said that he deleted the email, that he wasn't concerned about it. In addition to that letter, though, we also sent a letter to all of the commissioners urging them to change their hearts, to turn around their decision, revise it and support giving readers access, support.