Romney, Big Bird and Obama: Presidential debates and public media

Romney and Big Bird from the PBS show 'Sesame Street' will be enemies if Romney wins the presidential elections in November. Setting off a social media firestorm, Romney informed the American public that funding for public media would be cut if elected.

AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Romney and Big Bird won't be friends if the Republican presidential candidate wins the election. 'Sesame Street' and other public television shows and media will be on the endangered list, Romney says. Big Bird in Sesame Street, filmed in Los Angeles, CA., Aug. 30, 2009.

Forget Romney vs. Obama. The real choice surrounding last night’s debate was: Big Bird or Oscar?

Yes, as you may have heard already, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s comment in last night’s debate that he would cut funding to PBS (but don’t worry, some of his best friends are extra large, yellow, feathered creatures) set off a firestorm on planet Twitter and elsewhere in the Internet solar system.

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No sooner than you can say C is for Cookie, the nationwide, virtual response was rolling.

Twitter announced that soon after Romney’s comments, users were posting 17,000 tweets per minute mentioning Big Bird. Up came the spoof accounts, like @firedbigbird. The hashtag #SaveBigBird trended worldwide. Photoshoppers put together portraits of Romney and Big Bird, and of Big Bird looking for work.  (Although some Twitter users suggested that since he’s free, Big Bird might think about replacing Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine next year...)

And, of course, there was the debate.

If one Sesame Street character is going to get the ax – or be saved by a presidential candidate – who should that be?

Now, before we share our opinions on that, it seems journalistically prudent to recount what Romney really said to moderator Jim Lehrer.

“I’m sorry, Jim, 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 keep spending money on things, borrowing money from China to pay for it.”

Cutting funding for public broadcasting, of course, is a tried and true GOP line. Over the past years, conservative lawmakers have voted repeatedly to axe federal support for public media, often criticizing organizations such as NPR and PBS as having liberal bents or saying that the groups should be self-sufficient.

Both public radio and public television get their federal funding (small but crucial percentages of their budgets, administrators say, which are often earmarked for under-served and rural populations) from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for its part, gets a bit under $500 million in taxpayer dollars a year to distribute.

No small amount of change by itself, but in the grand scheme of the federal budget, not so much. It’s a few days of war in Afghanistan, according to many estimates. Just to put it in perspective.

As to the percentage of that $500 million that Big Bird actually pockets?  Pretty tiny. 

But still, Mr. Romney says he’s all about trimming costs.

Which left a number of Twitter users saying: why not get rid of Cookie Monster first?

“He’s a bad role model for today’s overweight kids,” wrote one user.  (Just see our post from yesterday for the trouble you can get into for saying things like that.)

Others rushed to the C Monster’s defense.

“Cookie Monster for president!” a faithful Tweeter declared. 
The Oscar The Grouch party jumped in with its candidate. Hey, his supporters said, he’s already used to living in a trashcan. He can handle budget cuts.
Bert and Ernie made a strong showing, with Elmo coming in with a respectable Ron Paul-like appearance.

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And Grover? Ah, Grover. He wasn’t much of a fighter in this one.

As for the real Sesame Street – it declined to weigh in on any of these debates, according to the actual political correspondents who were covering this. Big Bird is only 6 years old, they pointed out. He’s too young to be into politics. And he's also up past his bedtime.

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