Romney’s PBS Cuts: Beyond Big Bird

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

When I conducted an impromptu survey of my friends’ fondest memories, I was surprised at how many of those watershed moments shed light on who they became as adults.

Kellee, a professional actress and singer, recalled the Pointer Sisters’ counting anthem, “The Pinball Countdown,” which aired on Sesame Street in the late ’70s. “I sing that song all the time, and it makes me feel happy.” In minute-long segments, it taught children to count from one to 12. “No matter what I’m doing, I have to say ’11, 12′ in a goofy deep voice.”

My friend Jamyla, the “mixtress” behind the natural skin-care line Oyin Handmade, remembered the science-loving teens of “The Bloodhound Gang,” crime-solving segments featured on the program 3-2-1 Contact, which aired from 1980 to 1988.

“It was like an Encyclopedia Brown book come to life,” said Jamyla of the gang. “These cool teenagers solving mysteries with science and smartness. It was a welcoming and affirming representation of my personal world because Vikki [played by Nan Lynn Nelson] looked like a younger version of my auntie.”

Personally I count not appearing as a miniature book critic on Reading Rainbow as one of the major failures of my childhood. The third-longest running show on PBS, Reading Rainbow, with its black host and multicultural guests, made me believe I could actually “fly twice as high” as my dreams would go.

And longtime host LeVar Burton hasn’t stopped. The Reading Rainbow iPad app is the No. 1 free educational application, according to iTunes.

It’s no secret that a generation of us grew up with PBS as our personal tutor and pocket Jiminy Cricket. The channel taught us how to count and how to be kind, with few commercial breaks in between. And it continues to make headlines for celebrating diversity, from the first HIV-positive Muppet, South Africa’s Kami, to the “I Love My Hair” song aimed at curly-haired little brown girls.

As the campaign for president rolls on, making the requisite pit stops on Main Street and even Wall Street, bulldozing over Sesame Street is more than just a double-take moment.

“You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird,” Romney said Tuesday in Iowa.

Instead of scratching his head, Romney should put a thinking cap on it and figure out how to tackle the deficit while leaving alone the tiny 0.012 percent slice of the federal budget allotted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Or perhaps that’s what a lack of PBS does — shrinks the imagination.  

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter. 

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