Romney’s PBS Cuts: Beyond Big Bird

Don't let the Sesame Street jokes obscure the long-lasting implications of defunding the TV network.

(The Root) — One of the most memorable lines from last week’s presidential debate wasn’t about universal health care or even big government — it was about Big Bird.

When Republican candidate Mitt Romney summarily attacked PBS, the political punch lines, of course, practically wrote themselves — from plays on Wall Street and Sesame Street to Big Bird being broke.

But given the frosty educational climate in the U.S., with affirmative action being called into question by the Supreme Court and renewed debates about funding for early-childhood education, Romney’s hard-line stance on PBS is more than problematic, especially as it relates to African-American children. 

According to PBS, the network’s children’s programming attracts a higher proportion of viewers from Hispanic, African-American and low-income households compared with their actual representation in the population. Basically, Romney grossly underestimated how many of those 47 percenters would have Big Bird’s back.

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow was one such supporter.

“Let me make it simple for you, Mr. Romney. I’m down with Big Bird. You pick on him, you answer to me,” he wrote. “We were poor. My mother couldn’t afford day care, and I didn’t go to preschool. My great-uncle took care of me all day. I could watch one hour of television: PBS.”

So here’s what happened. Last Wednesday, when moderator Jim Lehrer asked how each candidate would tackle “the deficit problem in this country,” Romney responded: “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. 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.”

And the tiny blue birds tweeting all over the Internet went wild. Big Bird trended for days following the debate. The Twitter account “BigBirdRomney” has gathered more than 10,000 followers in less than one week.

The Obama campaign even seized the moment this week with a satirical political ad starring the “big yellow menace to our economy.” 

“Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about,” intones the narrator. “It’s Sesame Street.

But once all the clever Internet memes — photos of Big Bird down on his luck after getting “fired” — get buried on your Facebook timelines under the next day’s news, the fact remains that Big Bird and his buddies bookmark a turning point in many African-American adults’ childhood memories.