By Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis
Is it time to fire Big Bird? Mitt Romney apparently won last week’s debate with President Barack Obama, but he created controversy with his promise to stop federal subsidies of “Sesame Street” and the rest of the programming on the Public Broadcasting System.
“I like PBS. I love Big Bird,” Romney said. “... But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things (we have) to borrow money from China to pay for.”
The Obama campaign launched an ad criticizing Romney’s position, and Big Bird even appeared on “Saturday Night Live” to defend himself.
Should the feds fund PBS? Or is it time to for Big Bird, Grover and Elmo to find a new home?
If PBS loses its federal funding tomorrow, you won’t have to mourn for Big Bird. “Sesame Street” is a popular brand, and it will certainly find a home in the private sector if there is no more public television to host it.
The problem is this: Sometimes, the private sector ruins and taints good things.
That’s true even in the television industry. Fearful PBS supporters this week have been reminding the public of the history of TLC, the popular cable channel. It was started in 1972 as a federal service, offering educational programs about science, nature, history and current events -- and then was privatized in 1980. These days, the channel is best known as the home of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” a piece of programming that offers plenty of evidence that American culture is in free fall.
We’d be better off with the nature documentaries.
It’s important to note, too, that Romney’s budget ax wouldn’t just fall on PBS. Romney is taking aim at the entirety of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That, in turn, means NPR is in danger — as are many rural communities where NPR is the best (and often only) source of news and important information on the radio dial.
The CPB’s 2012 budget? $445 million. You could buy a single F-22 fighter for that amount of money, with some change left over for spare parts, pilot training and fuel. Slicing public broadcasting out of the budget won’t make any meaningful difference in the country’s deficits or debts — but it will make a huge difference in Americans’ ability to understand the who, what, why and where of their own country. Public broadcasting is a public good, period.
Big Bird will survive privatization. Other smart, essential broadcast programming won’t. When you enter the polling booth in November, be careful you don’t accidentally vote for Honey Boo Boo.
“If you don’t have a record to run on,” Obama said in 2008, “you make a big election about small things.”
With a sluggish economy, chaos in Libya, a looming confrontation with Iran, an unpopular health care law and a fiscal cliff fast approaching, the president has decided to make a big election about Big Bird.
“There’s been a strong grassroots outcry over the attacks on Big Bird,” Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Air Force One this week, apparently with a straight face. “There’s only one candidate in this race who is going to continue to fight for Big Bird and Elmo, and he is riding on this plane.”
Portraying Romney’s case for setting budget priorities as an “attack on Big Bird” is simply unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is that one candidate would sway voters by standing up for a pair of fictional characters whose creators, Sesame Workshop and its various subsidiaries, earned $134 million in revenues last year alone.
If anything useful may come from arguing the merits of subsidizing “Sesame Street” in particular and public broadcasting generally, it will be in the context of the ongoing debate over the proper size and scope of government. That’s a big thing for a big election.
To claim that $445 million for the CPB is a miniscule item within a $3.7 trillion budget, the answer must be: So what? Many public goods do not require government subsidies. Defense, at least, is a clear constitutional duty of government. Providing quality children’s television is not.
In the present crisis, serious people need to reassess whether it’s a wise use of public money to underwrite public TV — because unless Congress acts before the end of the year, everyone’s taxes will go up.
The choice doesn’t come down to Big Bird versus Honey Boo Boo. The choice is necessity versus frivolity.
(Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Or see facebook.com/benandjoel.)