Is Mitt Romney really Oscar the Grouch in disguise?
Millions of people might think so after Romney threatened to fire Big Bird, the fluffy yellow giant who has been a staple of the children's TV show "Sesame Street" since 1969. The bird appears as one of many beloved characters, including Oscar, Cookie Monster, Grover, Count von Count and Bert and Ernie.
During Wednesday night's debate with President Barack Obama, Romney said he would make cuts of government subsidies according to a formula -- whether a particular program is "so critical that it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it; and if not, I'll get rid of it." He named PBS as a candidate for the chopping block, renewing a decades-old debate about the appropriateness of taxpayer-funded broadcasting. Romney also named Obamacare, the president's national health care takeover. But it was the Big Bird comment that exploded across the twitterverse:
"I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. ... I like PBS; I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too," Romney quipped, gesturing to Emmy Award-winning journalist and debate moderator Jim Lehrer. "But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for." Lehrer himself has been a staple of PBS since 1975 through in-depth news programs such as "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" (later "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "PBS NewsHour").
Almost instantly, a Twitter account called @FiredBigBird opened and amassed 10,000 followers before being suspended, according to USA Today. The account holder sent a manipulated photo of Big Bird in a Depression-era bread line with the caption, "This is now my life." By Thursday morning, a Facebook post linking to ValuePBS.org had been seen by 225,000 users and had generated 500 comments.
One irony is that "Sesame Street" is not funded by the government. Only the stations on which it is broadcast are. The show is produced and funded by a nonprofit organization, the Sesame Workshop, which gets most of its money from toy licensing, corporate sponsorships and donations from philanthropic organizations.
The $445 million that goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS's parent) trickles down via grants to National Public Radio stations and 179 PBS local stations in exchange for their broadcasting services. The grants represent, on average, 15 percent of a station's operating budget and could force shutdown if lost.
Commercial-free "Sesame Street" would just be collateral damage.
All this raises a good question: In hard times, is it wise to slash everything in sight, or is it better to retain some small expenses that make life tolerable? Even in the Great Depression, a child could still get an ice cream cone. Is absolute austerity, even with little things, the right answer for something as massive as a budget deficit in the trillions?
In the grand scheme of things, $445 million is a drop in the bucket. But the Corporation for Public Broadcasting produces much that is rich and enlightening. Is it really necessary to go down to the very bone everywhere when cost-cutting to avoid borrowing from China?
Public-funded broadcasting has a long and praiseworthy record of service, providing programming in the arts, education, culture and journalism that might otherwise be hard to come by. Losing it outright would make a more dreary world -- something like building schools with only right-angle corners. It would be cheaper to build giant cracker-boxes with no human dimensions of space and movement and beauty in the architecture, but most of us wouldn't want to send our children there.
The flip side of the Romney argument, then, might be along the lines that no matter how bad the economy or national debt become, we must all still breathe. We must remain human -- like Big Bird, who, although avian, has managed to keep his perspective.
The Bird lives in a large nest behind the 123 Sesame Street brownstone with a teddy bear named Radar. He was not made available for interviews after the presidential debate, but he did tweet on Thursday, apparently unaware of the national brouhaha:
"My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?"