The Battle Over Big Bird

By Michael Baker

For all the hullabaloo over last week’s presidential debate, there seem to be only two things that most Americans remember: Mitt Romney may or may not favor a huge tax cut for the wealthy, and Mitt Romney wants to cut funding to public broadcasting.  Team O has really decided to run with the second of those two talking points.

Since last week, Obama has been on the campaign trail joking about Romney’s intention to “get tough on Big Bird.”  The President’s campaign even has a new TV ad that mocks the idea of going after Big Bird as a means of straightening out the economy.  Romney’s campaign has done the logical thing and attempted to portray the President’s remarks as petty and avoidant of the real issues that the Country is facing.

I agree with Mitt’s campaign that this whole discussion over Big Bird is stupid, but not for the reasons that the Republicans would prefer I buy into.  It’s stupid coming from both sides.

It’s stupid for Romney to suggest that we can reign in the deficit by cutting funding to PBS.  The Democrats correctly point out that public funding eats up less than 0.1% of the Federal budget, and to act as though cutting funding to PBS and NPR should be anything more than an afterthought is misguided (or, more realistically, politically guided).

It’s also stupid for Obama to play on Big Bird.  It makes him look kind of dopey (unless he’s going for the toddler vote), and it completely avoids the obvious truth that, with or without Federal funding, Big Bird will be fine – at least, as fine as a non-existent character can be.  Sesame Street is a fixture, and if it can’t air on PBS, it’ll air somewhere else.  If PBS ever goes under, there will be plenty of interest from for-profit broadcasters; we’d just have to get used to the idea of Sesame Street being brought to us by Johnson & Johnson instead of the Letter G.

During the debate, Romney stated that he likes PBS.  I think that’s probably a load of crap.  I doubt Mitt cares about PBS, and to the extent that he does, he probably thinks the people who run PBS are the worst bunch of filthy hippies since the liberal thugs who run NPR.  But I actually do like PBS.  I think that PBS’s dry, completely un-compelling news coverage is one of the only places on TV where you can get an accurate, unbiased account of current events.  Washington Week is – no shit – my favorite TV show.  And a few weeks ago I came home late and found that PBS was airing a production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera, and I stayed up until 3 a.m. watching that nonsense.

So it’s true, I like PBS.  And you know what?  PBS will be fine.  Even without Federal funding, it’ll be fine.  If the Republicans cut funding to public broadcasting (a pretty big IF, in my opinion), we’ll see the same kind of rush to make donations that we saw when the Susan G. Komen Foundation cut funding to Planned Parenthood.  PP did record donation numbers in the wake of that fiasco.  PBS might not have the level of political cache that PP does, but it’s even more of an American fixture, and if it loses funding it’ll cut some costs and rake in the charitable donations for years to come.  Trust me – PBS will stay on the air, NPR will stay boring, and Big Bird will be fine.