Wednesday’s presidential debate may be best remembered for Mitt Romney’s promise to fire a giant yellow puppet.
“I’m sorry Jim,” Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, who hosts the NewsHour on PBS. “I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things. I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too.”
It wasn’t the first time a Republican has promised to defund Sesame Street. In 1995, newly-elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for eliminating funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and privatizing PBS.
However, the hearings on cutting PBS’s budget were held before the House Appropriations Education Subcommittee, chaired by then-Rep. John Porter, whose North Shore district has one of the highest concentration of public television viewers in the nation. (There’s a joke that WTTW stands for “Wilmette Talks To Winnetka.”)
Even then, conservative media critic L. Brent Bozell brought up Big Bird.
"If you really, really cared about Big Bird, you'd set him free so he could go on a commercial network," Bozell said.
Porter maintained public broadcasting’s funding. After retiring from Congress, he became a member of PBS’s board of directors.
The effort to privatize PBS failed, probably because Republicans’ real objections to the network were political, not financial. Conservatives feel that public broadcasting advances a liberal agenda. They call NPR “National People’s Radio.” For real, though, public radio is a white liberal obsession. Every fuel-efficient foreign car sold in Chicago might as well be pre-tuned to WBEZ.
At the time, though, I was working for a newspaper in Decatur, a culturally conservative city in central Illinois. One day, I did a “man on the street” feature in which I asked random Decaturites whether they favored cutting PBS’s subsidy. No one did. The reason? They associated PBS with quality children’s programming. To them, it was a station where kids could watch educational shows without cartoon violence or commercials for sugary cereals.
Romney tried to camouflage his opposition to PBS as a deficit-cutting measure, but he was really making an appeal to cultural conservatives. It didn’t work in 1995, though, and it won’t work. Big Bird is just more lovable than Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney.