The bootlegged video of Mitt Romney washing his hands of 47% of the U.S. electorate certainly set off a firestorm. In fact, so much so that the Republican candidate found it necessary to recanted his statement recently on Fox News. Now a lot of people are wondering if Mr. Romney will walk back the statement he made to Jim Lehrer, PBS newsman emeritus, and moderator of the first 2012 presidential debate.
“I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney stated. “I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
An immediate cry went up in defense of Public Broadcasting, citing the enduring merits of Big Bird and the other denizens of Sesame Street. A wave of petitions and expressions of outrage hit social media and the day after the debate, PBS castigated Mr. Romney in a statement:
“For more than 40 years, Big Bird has embodied the public broadcasting mission – harnessing the power of media for the good of every citizen, regardless of where they live or their ability to pay. Our system serves as a universally accessible resource for education, history, science, arts and civil discourse.”
“Over the course of a year, 91 percent of all U.S. television households tune in to their local PBS station. In fact, our service is watched by 81 percent of all children between the ages of 2-8. Each day, the American public receives an enduring and daily return on investment that is heard, seen, read and experienced in public media broadcasts, apps, podcasts and online — all for the cost of about $1.35 per person per year.”
The PBS statement goes on to point out that for every $1.00 received in public financing, public television and radio stations are able to raise $6.00 on their own, calling this “a highly effective public-private partnership.”
One very vocal, high-profile critic of Mr. Romney’s position is Charles M. Blow, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. As he says in his most recent column, “Don’t Mess With Big Bird,” the Republican candidate’s comments are “fighting words.”
Mr. Blow grew up poor, in a rural community. Daycare and nursery schools were out of the question, and a great-uncle was enlisted to watch young Charles while his mother went to work. He was allowed to watch one hour of television a day -- and that hour became transformative. What did he watch? Sesame Street.
Looking back, Blow credits Sesame Street with teaching him the alphabet, colors and simple math, and he goes on to enumerate the many gifts public broadcasting brought to this small town boy. In an environment that was bereft of museums, concert halls and after school enrichment programs, PBS brought culture. Nature shows and programming that featured scientific discoveries offered a window into worlds that were barely touched on in his local school. As Blow states in his column, “I honestly don’t know where I would be in the world without PBS.”
And Blow is hardly alone. Whether it’s Sesame Street, the News Hour or Antiques Roadshow, public television is a vital, important part of our nation’s information and cultural landscape. And at a yearly cost of $1.35 per person, it’s a pretty terrific deal -- so Mr. Romney had better run the numbers before he advocates chopping Big Bird.