Plucking Big Bird is not the answer to national financial woes

During the Oct. 3 presidential debate, moderated by Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was pressed to say what budget cuts he would make to reduce the federal deficit.

"I'm sorry Jim," Romney responded. "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS ... I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I'm not going to borrow money from China to pay for it."

Oh, here we go again.

It seems every few years when discussing the ever-increasing federal budget, Republican politicians and conservative commentators get the insane idea of cutting out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the non-profit agency that in part funds PBS, National Public Radio and about 1,300 locally owned and operated television and radio stations around the country.

For the record, I'm a former employee of KERA/Channel 13 and 90.1 FM, the local PBS and NPR affiliates, and I still participate occasionally in some programming and on-air fundraisers for the stations.

I loved public broadcasting long before I became affiliated with it, for even in its infancy we knew it had the ability not only to entertain, but to educate. That one program Romney mentioned that's home to Big Bird, Sesame Street, made it obvious rather quickly that public television could have a positive impact on early childhood education.

But conservatives long have viewed public broadcasting entities as liberal bastions and, therefore, easy targets for de-funding -- along with other evil institutions supporting the arts and humanities.

Once again, a politician has set CPB in his sights, knowing full well that the amount that would be saved by cutting it is miniscule compared to the $1.1 trillion deficit this year alone.

And the suggestion disregards the good that limited funding ($445 million) does in supporting the two networks, all the stations and a list of other program providers that serve 37 million public radio listeners a week and 118 million public television viewers a month.

By law, 72 percent of CPB funds must go directly to the local stations.

Back in 1967, when Congress created CPB -- before there was satellite distribution and PBS was shipping programs via Greyhound buses -- the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television had recommended federal funding of $100 million annually. Congress appropriated only $5 million that year, and public broadcasting has had to fight ever since for every federal dollar it receives.

Maybe that's the way it always will be.

In a way, it's funny that, with all of the big issues facing this country, Big Bird has become part of the presidential campaign. Actually, it's rather sad that a children's television show is remotely part of a serious discussion about the economic crisis this country continues to face.

Romney's debate statement about cutting PBS has given President Obama a new line to use on the campaign trail in discussing his opponent's economic policies.

"He'll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he's going to crack down on Sesame Street," Obama has been saying on the stump lately.

As I said, even though public broadcasting is a tiny part of the federal budget, we've had to fight for years in trying to save it -- first from President Richard Nixon and later from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and a bunch of others.

What Nixon and many other Republicans came to understand is that many of the people who have supported their campaigns with major contributions also support public broadcasting and those organizations that receive money from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

We've always been able to call on some of those allies in this never-ending battle.

As for Big Bird, I'm not really worried about him because I know he's more popular than any politician in Washington.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.


Twitter: @BobRaySanders